January 16, 2020

Benedict XVI – Sarah’s book: What if the real issue is the lack of institutional thinking?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Dec. 21, 2018. Credit: Vatican Media.
Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Dec. 21, 2018. Credit: Vatican Media.

The draft of the Curia reform, Praedicate Evangelium, does not even mention the office of the Pope emeritus. It is as if Benedict XVI’s 2013 renunciation were unique in history: a “one-off” and never to happen again. Recent high-stakes polemics surrounding not only the person, but the position of the Pope emeritus, have made it clear that  establishing something like an “office” of Pope emeritus could be critical. It would prevent confusion. It would even give more freedom to the reigning Pope.

The issue of the Pope emeritus came crashing into the fore of public discussion because of the book on priestly celibacy by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments. The book also has a contribution by Benedict XVI.

The publication of a text by Benedict XVI on celibacy just ahead of the release of the post-Synodal exhortation from Pope Francis, following the special assembly of the synod of bishops for the Amazon, was read as a statement against Pope Francis, who is said to be willing allow the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The attacks targeted Cardinal Sarah because he allegedly used Benedict XVI’s text in a way different than what agreed with Pope emeritus.

Cardinal Sarah defended himself. He published the correspondence he had with Benedict XVI before the publication. The letters show that Benedict XVI was aware of the book and agreed with publishing his text. Benedict XVI’s entourage asked anyway to change the book’s cover, so that the Pope emeritus would appear in subsequent editions as  a contributor, not as co-author.

Ignatius Press, the publisher of the book in English, has said it will consider any request to change the cover and other attributions, but has not received any official indication. According to their criteria, the book is co-authored by Cardinal Sarah and Benedict XVI.

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. 

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. 

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. 

If this system were applied, there would be no space for free speech in the Church, and small lobbies would be able to exercise an unprecedented pressure. These are the risks when the goal is to open processes without any initial regulation.In the end, the issue of Benedict XVI – Sarah’s book implies a different problem, which involves the Church reform Pope Francis undertook: the institutional issue.

Pope Francis has always said he wants a conversion of hearts. The conversion of hearts must be framed into an organization, however, setting the institution in the first place. The Church lasted  2,000 years in part because the institution has always come before individual churchmen and ultimately won out over concerns for their personal circumstances. 

A strong institution, in the end, could have easily absorbed “book-gate”.

In the end, the main characters of the story are: a Pope emeritus almost mocked because he was allegedly manipulated; a cardinal targeted as an anti-Pope; a Pope described as unaware of the maneuvers behind his back. In the meantime, a theological contribution by two very senior churchmen was momentarily overshadowed, and there was no discussion on what the book actually says. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.