After his resignation in 2013, Pope Benedict chose to live in the Vatican in silence. But his presence, his influence, and a growing campaign is causing problems for Pope Francis and threatens to undermine his papacy, writes TP O’Mahony.
The opulent Roman salon of a wealthy German princess is the location for regular gatherings of a group of ultra-conservative Catholics — including Steve Bannon, former White House strategist once favoured by President Donald Trump — where they plot their campaign to undermine the Papacy of Francis.
She is Princess Gloria of Thurn and Taxis, famously dubbed Princess TNT by Vanity Fair in 1985 because of her explosive personality, a devout if very traditionalist Catholic.
She hosts meetings attended by a number of senior Cardinals as well as Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the long-time personal secretary to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
This group — and this is what is most controversial — is appealing to and seeking to use the legacy of the retired 92-year-old Pope, who is resident in the Vatican, to lend legitimacy to their anti-Francis campaign.
What is not clear at this stage is the extent to which, if at all, Benedict is aware and approving of their efforts. Further light may be thrown on this later in the year when Austin Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, publishes his new book. This is entitled Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Reform the Catholic Church, and is due out in November.
The author has already given voice to his misgivings about what’s happening in Rome in an article in the current edition of The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly.
The article has drawn the support of the editor, Brendan Walsh, in a very trenchant editorial under the heading “Rome Cannot be Home to Two Popes”. The cover of the magazine shows Francis and Benedict together under the heading “One Pope Too Many?”
The opening paragraph of the editorial captures the essence of the difficulty of having two Popes in the Vatican — an unprecedented situation in the modern Church. “Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign as Pope on 13 February 2013 and to live silently in the Vatican thereafter is beginning to cause problems. Opponents of Pope Francis’ reforms have begun to treat Benedict as the true Pope, suggesting the papacy of Francis is somehow invalid.
“There is even a popular T-shirt with a slogan ‘Benedict is my Pope’, which Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, has been seen wearing”.
This was a controversy waiting to happen.
The big mistake was made in the immediate aftermath of Benedict’s bombshell resignation. Back in 1294, when Celestine V became the last Pope to resign voluntarily, his successor immediately banished him to a remote castle.
There were plenty of institutions in his native Germany that would have been happy to accommodate him, including the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, where he was professor of theology before becoming Archbishop on Munich in March 1977.
Incidentally, it was in the cathedral in Regensburg that Gloria von Schonburg-Glauchau married Prince Johannes of Thurn and Taxis in 1980; she was 19 he was 53 and lived in the Palace of Emmeram in Bavaria, a 500-room mansion where he died in 1990. His wealth at the time of the marriage was estimated at $3bn.
Allowing Benedict to stay on in Rome as Emeritus Pope was always pregnant with risk. A comment made by the distinguished church historian, JND Kelly of Oxford, in his Oxford Dictionary of Popes, about Celestine V in the 13th century, has a troublesome relevance today: “Pliable in clever hands, Pietro (Pietro del Morrone was Celestine’s name) could easily have been made the rallying-point of a schism”.
What we know about Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict’s name), always a man of the study, is that he is weak when it comes to handling people, a key factor in his decision to abdicate.
The scenario that some feared came into the public forum back in April. The French Catholic daily paper, La Croix, reported that a German magazine had published a long essay by the former Pope who seemed to take the opposite position to Pope Francis on the issue of sexual abuse.
“Benedict XVI has linked the 1960 sexual revolution and cliques of homosexuals in seminaries to the ongoing crisis within the Catholic Church over sexual abuse of children. The retired Pope, who in 2013 became the first Pope in more than 700 years to voluntarily step down, argued that the sexual revolution had led some to believe paedophilia and pornography were acceptable.
“He stated his views in a 6,000-word essay that was to be published on April 11 in his native Bavaria by the monthly Catholic paper, Klerusblatt. But a number of conservative Catholic websites had already posted an English translation of the text a day earlier.”
However, La Croix noted that critics had suggested that Benedict was trying to shift blame for Church sexual abuses to society at large. The following day, in an interview with the paper, Marie-Jo Thiel, Professor of Theology at the University of Strasbourg, expressed surprise at Benedict’s essay, in particular his attempt to blame the sexual revolution of the 1960s for systemic clerical sex abuse.
“Church history shows that abuse by clerics is not a recent phenomenon. It is true that society in the 1960s was characterised by a crisis of authority and sexual permissiveness. However, this context does not suffice to fully explain the sex abuse crisis... He does not seem to perceive the overall problem — the link with abuse of power and conscience which does not appear at all in the document.”
The really surprising thing is that the essay was seen in advance by both Pope Francis and the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. They did nothing about it. That was the second mistake. The Emeritus Pope should have been reminded of his promise to stay silent during his retirement.
When the essay appeared, Vatican commentators wrote stories about “duelling Popes”, and a Washington Post headline said: “Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis”. This is the central and very worrying concern. Austen Ivereigh believes the Pope Emeritus, since his resignation, “has been exploited by those seeking to undermine his successor”.
Ivereigh says Archbishop Ganswein and Cardinal Gerhard Muller are central players in the opposition to Francis. The Pope removed Muller from his powerful post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2017. Muller has been openly critical ever since.
“It was Ganswein who in 2013 had urged Benedict, in spite of his protests, to dress in white, live in the Vatican and be referred to as ‘His Holiness’,” Ivereigh says.
Steve Bannon, whose personal enmity towards Francis is well known, has become the darling of right-wing Catholic groups in the USA and parts of Europe who wish to see a restoration of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.
Bannon is part of a consortium planning to buy or lease a disused monastery some 80km from Rome which he hopes to turn into a centre to defend the “Judaeo-Christian West” — an implied criticism of the Francis Papacy.
The Pope’s stated policies on immigration and climate change have met with fierce opposition, not just from Italy’s far-right parties but also from Bannon, who is also hostile to the EU.
It is not clear to what extent Bannon has been behind efforts to manipulate the Emeritus Pope in the undermining of the serving Pope.
The presence of two Popes in close proximity in the Vatican — Francis lives in the Casa Santa Marta, an upmarket guesthouse, and Benedict stays in the Mater Ecclesiae convent just up the hill — always had the potential to create tensions, misunderstandings, misrepresentations, or be open to exploitation by one faction or another.
“Ever since Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in six centuries to abdicate the papacy, transitioning to a life of near seclusion in a Vatican City monastery, there have been questions about how the notion of two living Popes would impact the Roman Catholic Church,” said Chico Harlan, the Rome bureau chief of the Washington Post.
“Some Vatican watchers and insiders say the mere fact of Benedict’s 2013 abdication has made the modern papacy more vulnerable, emboldening voices of dissent. They say it’s hard to imagine a letter like the one released by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (during Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland), provoking Pope Francis with a call to resign, without Benedict having created the possibility that modern Popes might give up their seat before death.
According to veteran Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa, the Italian daily paper, it will take years still to fully account for the ramifications of Benedict’s resignation. Even the visual effect — two men in papal white inside the Vatican walls — has been striking and disorienting.
“It’s a kind of duplication of the image,” Tornielli says. “It’s a total novelty in the history of the Church.”
But it’s also a troubling and troublesome novelty, especially since Benedict set aside his pledge to maintain a general silence.
Which is why, according to Chico Harlan, a number of conservatives have latched onto to him as a symbolic ally.
In the period following the shock abdication of Benedict XVI on February 13, 2013, several commentators (and I count myself among them) drew attention to this possibility and even sounded a warning about trouble ahead.
This is especially so because the two men are very different, not just in personality, but — more crucially — in their vision of the Papacy and the future direction of the Church. They have what the scholars call “different ecclesiologies” — different models of the Church and of the role of the Pope.
Benedict, just like John Paul II before him, was wedded to a monarchical model, and, also like his predecessor, committed to rolling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Francis, on the other hand, has been working to dismantle and abandon the monarchical trappings of the Papacy, hence his decision not to live in the baroque splendour of the palatial surrounds of the papal apartments, but to settle instead for a suite of rooms in a guesthouse.
The divergence of approach was clear ever since, as Paul Vallely, another papal biographer, put it. Francis announced “his intention to transform the cultured silk-brocaded propriety of the Rome of Pope Benedict XVI into ‘a poor Church, for the poor’.”
He is also passionately committed to implementing the reforms of Vatican II, and has been actively promoting a synodal model of governance accompanied by a decentralisation of the power increasingly concentrated under the long combined pontificate of Wojtyla/Ratzinger in the Roman Curia.
And last month, in what will be seen as another indication of Francis’s reformist policies, Jason Horowitz of the New York Times reported from Rome that “in a potentially groundbreaking move”, the Catholic Church “cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men to the priesthood to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics in remote areas of the Amazon”.
The proposal is contained in a document prepared for a forthcoming Synod on the Pan-Amazon region.
“It is the kind of exception to the celibacy requirement that church experts say — and church traditionalists worry — could be a step toward the ordination of married men in other areas of the world,” according to Horowitz.
Francis had already enraged traditionalists with the publication in April 2016 of his document Amoris Laetita (“the Joy of Love”) which followed two Synods in Rome on the theme of “the family”.
In it, he softened regulations to make it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist.
In a move that is unprecedented in the modern history of the Papacy, four Cardinals publicly challenged Pope Francis. In the words of his biographer, Paul Vallely, the four “have published ‘doubts’, virtually accusing him of heresy”.
The four were Cardinal Raymond Burke (USA), Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (former Archbishop of Bologna), Cardinal Joacim Meisner (former Archbishop of Cologne), and Cardinal Walter Brandmuller (Germany), former president of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences. Two of this quartet (the others have died in the meantime) — Burke and Brandmuller — are regulars at the get-togethers in the salon of Princess Gloria.
Cardinal Burke, a former Archbishop of Archdiocese of St Louis, has been a persistent critic of Pope Francis, and was removed from his position as head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s Supreme Court) for refusing to implement changes to procedures for annulments which has been sanctioned by the Pope.
The very public expression of opposition by these four senior churchmen to the Pope has no parallel in the history of the modern Papacy, and meant, in the words of Clifford Longley, editorial adviser to The Tablet, that “Pope Francis has a mutiny of his hands”.
This situation, which, of its very nature, is potentially schismatic, continues and bodes ill for the remainder of the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio who will be 83 in December.
It remains to be seen whether Benedict XVI, whose health if failing, allows himself to go on being used in a way that suggests a parallel papacy. The sessions in the opulent salon of Princess Gloria are predicated on the on-going “legitimacy” of the pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger — with very dangerous implications for the Catholic Church, implications no one can foresee.
With papal resignations likely to become the norm rather than the exception from now on, it is clear that steps must be taken to ensure there is no repeat of the present situation.
There can only be one Pope; protocols must be put in place to guarantee that there can be no rival claimant to the title of “Supreme Pontiff”.