As the church mourns the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and debates his complex legacy as a theologian and administrator, I want to focus this column on the part of his legacy that historians will still mention in the same breath as Benedict’s name centuries from now: his resignation.
Benedict, as we well know, was the first pope to resign voluntarily in more than 700 years, doubtless setting the stage for future popes to resign. John Paul II’s gradual decline raised major questions about what should happen when a pope becomes too ill to govern. Although John Paul’s answer—“[Jesus] did not come down from the cross”—was a moving testimony to his commitment to serve the Church, it could not stop the inevitable jockeying for power that happens any time a leader is incapacitated. Benedict saw this firsthand and, recognizing his own limitations, set a new precedent.
Yet Benedict’s emeritus papacy was not the quiet withdrawal from public life he had envisioned. As his health declined (he has, for years, been unable to hold a conversation without someone, usually his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, “translating” his faint speech), people seeking to undermine Benedict’s successor swooped in to use the retired pope’s name to bolster their own messages. One notable example: In early 2020, Cardinal Robert Sarah claimed to have co-written a book with Benedict on priestly celibacy, opposing the ordination of married men that had been proposed by the bishops of the pan-Amazon synod. At the time, Pope Francis was still in the process of drafting his response, Querida Amazonia. This exhortation closed the door on a universal change in the clerical celibacy rule but left the door open for the Amazonian bishops to form a regional episcopal conference and to re-present the proposal in a way that would limit it to their region. The Sarah-Benedict book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, was interpreted as a thinly veiled effort to influence Francis’ decision on the matter.
Just before the book’s publication, however, Benedict requested, via Archbishop Gänswein, to have his name removed from the book, saying he had not agreed to co-author it and that he had simply provided Cardinal Sarah with a brief text on celibacy to use as he liked. The book’s American publisher, Ignatius Press, refused to remove the pope emeritus’ name from the first edition, in defiance of his request.
How did such a spectacular failure in communication come about? Similar questions have been raised over other post-papacy writings of Benedict. His 2019 letter blaming clerical sexual abuse on the sexual revolution of the 1960s included a bizarre claim that pornographic films being shown on airplanes had led to an outbreak of violence among passengers, which Benedict indicated was a sign of society’s “mental collapse.” In his early 2021 testimony to Munich abuse investigators, he claimed in defiance of documented meeting notes that he had not been part of a 1980 meeting where the case of a pedophile priest had been discussed. Reporters raised questions about the authorship of both texts and ultimately corrected the Munich testimony, conceding that the pope emeritus had not prepared the 82-page testimony himself.
That these examples occurred later in Benedict’s retirement as he grew frailer raises the question of how to prevent even retired popes from being taken advantage of as they age. It seems likely that, following the death of the pope emeritus, Pope Francis will want to place some guardrails on the office of emeritus pope, beginning first and foremost with its title: Experts I interviewed for a podcast earlier this year agreed that Francis would prefer the title “emeritus bishop of Rome,” to do away once and for all with the now Netflix-famous “two popes” narrative.
My sources raised other possibilities for reform, among them, limiting the public writings of the retired pope. I would argue this needs to include giving the Vatican’s communications dicastery control over disseminating the retired pope’s public comments; this was a point of tension each time some new statement came from Benedict’s office during his retirement. Other suggested reforms include having the pope emeritus return to wearing his cardinal’s attire or monastic garb rather than papal white, as previous retired popes before Benedict had done.
Pope Francis recently revealed that he had signed his own letter of resignation back in 2013, to be used if he ever became too ill to govern the church. He pointed to past popes who had done the same. Despite these personal decisions, though, there are currently no guidelines for how to handle a pope becoming too ill to govern, much less, as Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, has pointed out repeatedly since the 1990s, how to handle questions of a pope being on life support. And there are certainly no guidelines around the only recently reopened office of retired pope. As people live longer and medical interventions become more advanced, these questions grow more and more pressing, and they should be answered during the current papacy.
If the church is to honor the most important part of Benedict’s legacy—his humble and historic decision to resign—then it should look to Benedict’s post-papacy for lessons on how to protect retired popes from manipulation and properly incorporate their service to the church, whatever form it may take, in their final years.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.