ROME — The remarkable letter last month calling on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly shielding an abusive American cardinal also served as a public call to arms for some conservative Catholics who pine for the pontificate of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. For years now, they have carried his name like a battle standard into the ideological trenches.
Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.
In private letters published on Thursday by the German newspaper Bild, Benedict, who in retirement has remained studiously quiet through the controversies over Francis’ fitness to lead the church, says that the “anger” expressed by some of his staunchest defenders risks tarnishing his own pontificate.
“I can well understand the deep-seated pain that the end of my pontificate caused you and many others. But for some — and it seems to me for you as well — the pain has turned to anger, which no longer just affects the abdication but my person and the entirety of my pontificate,” Benedict wrote in a Nov. 23, 2017, letter to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller of Germany. “In this way the pontificate itself is being devalued and conflated with the sadness about the situation of the church today.”
Requests to representatives of Benedict and Cardinal Brandmüller for comment and authentication were not returned early Thursday. Bild provided the letters in their entirety to The Times.
Cardinal Brandmüller is one of the few cardinals who signed a 2016 letter of “dubia” — from the Latin for “doubts” — demanding clarification from Francis about his apparent willingness to open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, which the signatories argue is against church law.
The dubia letter received worldwide attention and served as a de facto declaration of independence from Francis, and its signatories, first among them the American cardinal Raymond Burke, have enthusiastically embraced the letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, which called on Francis to step down.
Archbishop Viganò claimed that Benedict had imposed sanctions on Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, for sexual misconduct, but that Francis had lifted those penalties. Francis’ defenders say there is no evidence that sanctions were placed on Cardinal McCarrick, who resigned in July, and point to ample evidence that he did not behave as if he were under such limitations. Neither the current pope nor his predecessor has commented.
Part of Archbishop Viganò’s motivation in publishing his letter was to come to the rescue of Benedict, who he felt was unfairly maligned by Italian journalists friendly to Pope Francis, according to Marco Tosatti, the Italian journalist who helped the archbishop draft the letter.
For years, the dissenting cardinals and their supporters have sought to align their cause to Benedict, who promised to remain “hidden to the world” after his 2013 resignation, which he attributed to his waning health and energy. Francis, 81, has made congenial visits to see Benedict, 91, creating white-robed photo opportunities that give the impression of a total lack of tension.
But Benedict, the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, refused to fully renounce the papacy, taking the title “pope emeritus” and continuing to live in the Vatican. “The ‘always’ is also a ‘forever’ — there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this,” he said during his last general audience.
For many supporters of Francis, Benedict’s status casts an unwelcome shadow over Francis and gives license and comfort to his enemies, though the former pontiff has kept a very low profile. Defenders of Benedict say that by living away from the public eye behind Vatican walls, he is actually avoiding the creation of a rival power center.
But in private, even Benedict’s most adamant supporters express frustration with him for quitting and allowing the election of Francis, a more pastoral, less doctrinaire pontiff who they think is ruining the church. They blame Benedict for lacking fight and throwing in the towel in the face of mounting pressure inside the Vatican, especially after he received a 300-page dossier by three cardinals that many in the Vatican believe details an extensive gay lobby within the church.
In an interview in October of last year with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Cardinal Brandmüller expressed that frustration publicly.
“The figure of ‘pope emeritus’ does not exist in the entire history of the church,” he said. “The fact that a pope comes along and topples a 2,000-year-old tradition bowled over not just us cardinals.”
He said that he had an interesting dinner party to celebrate a German carnival holiday on the day of the pope’s retirement in 2013. “We were just having our aperitif and were waiting for a missing guest when a journalist called with the question: Have you heard already? I thought the news was a carnival joke.”
Benedict, who is soft-spoken but can also be prickly, was not amused. He wrote in his letter to Cardinal Brandmüller that “Out of this conflation a new agitation is gradually being generated,” which he said could inspire more books like “The Abdication,” by Fabrizio Grasso, which argues that having one or more popes emeriti could fragment papal authority.
(In his book, Mr. Grasso wrote, “Even for those with little imagination, it’s not hard to imagine a possible near future with more than one emeritus pope and, consequentially, an exclusive papal club, which could be no other than a proto-parliament of the Vatican State.”)
Benedict wrote, “All this fills me with concern, and it was precisely because of this that the end of your F.A.Z. interview so unsettled me, because it would ultimately promote the same mood.”
The letter was his second in an exchange with Cardinal Brandmüller. The first, dated Nov. 9, 2017, was even sharper, coming as an immediate reaction to the German cardinal’s newspaper interview.
“Eminence!” he began. “You said that with ‘pope emeritus,’ I had created a figure that had not existed in the whole history of the church. You know very well, of course, that popes have abdicated, albeit very rarely. What were they afterward? Pope emeritus? Or what else?”
He cited the case of Pius XII, who feared capture by the Nazis and prepared a resignation in case that occurred.
“As you know, Pius XII had prepared a declaration in case the Nazis were to arrest him, that from the moment of the arrest he would no longer be pope but once again cardinal,” Benedict wrote. “In my case it would certainly not have been sensible to simply claim a return to being cardinal. I would then have been constantly as exposed to the media as a cardinal is — even more so because people would have seen in me the former pope.”
He added, “Whether on purpose or not, this could have had difficult consequences, especially in the context of the current situation.”
It is not clear what Benedict meant by “the current situation,” but some have interpreted it to mean the dismay among many of his followers about Francis. Benedict seemed to be saying that as a former pope, he was protected from such politics.
“With ‘pope emeritus,’ I tried to create a situation in which I am absolutely not accessible to the media and in which it is completely clear that there is only one pope,” he wrote. “If you know of a better way, and believe that you can judge the one I chose, please tell me.”
After Cardinal Brandmüller apparently begged Benedict’s forgiveness and explained how much pain his resignation had caused him and like-minded conservatives, the pope emeritus wrote the second letter. He concluded it by saying, “Let’s pray, as you did with the end of your letter, that the Lord comes to the aid of his church. With my apostolic blessing I am, Your Benedict XVI.”
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Berlin.
Source : Nytimes