We can only wonder what phone calls and conversations there have been between piazza Pia, headquarters of the Vatican Dicastery of Communication; the monastery Mater Ecclesiae, where Benedict XVI lives; and Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis lives.
In any case, the Vatican’s communication strategy appeared aimed at getting rid of any possible contraposition between “the two Popes” and, at the same time safeguarding Benedict XVI’s work. It was a particularly tricky needle to thread.
Benedict XVI feels free to write and publish for two reasons:
The first reason is that he actually acts as Pope emeritus. He does not feel bound to the Petrine office, so he has reverted to his former self, asProfessor Ratzinger. NB. Not Cardinal Ratzinger. Professor Ratzinger.
As a mere academic theologian, the man who became Benedict XVI used to think about issues. It is foreseeable that the return of many of the themes of the theological debate of the 1970s led him to write, reflect, participate in the discussion of them currently underway.
The correspondence with Cardinal Sarah reveals that Benedict XVI had already begun to write a reflection on the theme of the priestly celibacy. Benedict XVI felt that the work was not perfect, but he anyway gave it to Cardinal Sarah and approved the publication.
This means that Benedict XVI is attentive to discussion within the Church, and shows that he is still at work on some issues. He feels free because he is not interested in acting as a parallel magisterium. He merely studies arguments and argues out his own positions.
The second reason is that Pope Francis gave Benedict XVI permission to be active in public life. In one of his first interviews, given to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis stressed:
The Pope emeritus is not a statue in a museum. It is an institution. We weren’t used to it. 60 or 70 years ago, ‘bishop emeritus’ didn’t exist. It came after the (Second Vatican) Council. Today, it is an institution. The same thing must happen for the Pope emeritus. Benedict is the first, and perhaps there will be others. We don’t know. He is discreet, humble, and he doesn’t want to disturb. We have spoken about it, and we decided together that it would be better that he see people, get out, and participate in the life of the Church.
There was extensive debate about the activity of Benedict XVI in the public arena, and it was even requested that the silence of the Pope emeritus be regulated or imposed institutionally. That didn’t happen. Benedict XVI, meanwhile, feels himself very much free to write, to think, and to discuss; because, he has Pope Francis’s permission. As every Catholic, Benedict XVI gives total obedience to the Pope.
The real issue regards the office of the Pope emeritus itself. Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the papal office opened a new world. It had never happened in modern history. In the end, Benedict XVI decided that his title was going to be that of Pope emeritus and that he was going to wear the white cassock. He was not going to be a Cardinal again; he did not become a simple priest or even another “retired” bishop.
Theologian Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli noted that, with this decision, Benedict XVI interpreted the Petrine ministry as an episcopal ordination. When a bishop retires, he does not lose his episcopal status. He retires from his office. Benedict XVI was the first who did not identify the Papacy with the office of the pontifex.
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Benedict XVI opened a new way and left to his successor the task of regulating it.
Pope Francis was expected to issue a motu proprio or some other juridical document to provide a legal frame to the office of the Pope emeritus. The motu proprio might have clarified what the weight of Pope emeritus words would be, and which were the Pope emeritus’ responsibilities within the Church.
Never in the seven years of his pontificate, has Pope Francis done that. Nor have the Curia reform discussions touched the issue. There is, in the end, an institutional lacuna — even a vacuum — which is likely the main problem in Francis’ pontificate.
Elected with a mandate for reform, Pope Francis has made his decisions personally, and only later, sometimes given them an institutional framework. The latest example is the appointment of Francesca De Giovanni as Secretariat of State’s undersecretary for the multilateral relations.
This is a new position within the Secretariat of State. The new undersecretary is added to the undersecretary for the relations with the States. This new position is foreseen in the draft law reforming the Curia. However, the draft has not been approved yet. Pope Francis made the appointment without waiting for the reform. The office has been established.
As far as concerns the Pope emeritus, Pope Francis took his presence for granted, and trusted that there was no need to regulate the office. However, an institutional framework helps to prevent from misunderstandings.