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.
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.
Benedict XVI does not speak as a Pope; he is not looking to teach a magisterium other than Pope Francis' one. But anytime he speaks, he is considered like a reigning Pope.
(Column continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Migrants, underscored that if people quit considering Benedict XVI's words as those of a Pope, everything would be fixed. It is hard to disagree with him.
In the end, one doubts that the confusion is intentional. William Kilpatrick's argument on that, in an article penned for Catholic World Report and published on Dec. 6, 2019, is interesting.
Kilpatrick noted that recent scandals and debates (from the Amazonian Synod's Pachamama issue to the revelation on abuse cover-up) generated confusion among Catholics. He then stressed that "some people think the confusion is deliberate-the Vatican version of the Cloward-Piven Strategy. Devised by Columbia University-trained sociologists Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven-a husband-wife team dedicated to political activism-the strategy advocated strategic, organized overloading of the public welfare system. This would, as they wrote in a famous 1966 article in The Nation, create ' political crisis … that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty'."
In the end, Kilpatrick said, "the trick is to overwhelm the system with repeated demands in the hope that the resulting confusion will provide the conditions for implementing radical changes."
In a certain sense, since there is a lack of an institutional framework for the Pope emeritus, those who want to raise confusion and get to their goals can use this strategy.
So far, very few people have spoken of what Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah wrote in their book. The debate so far has focused almost entirely on the fact that the two wrote their reflection and that the reflection they wrote could be read in contrast with Pope Francis. So, it was better that Benedict XVI stay silent, and Cardinal Sarah resign.