Image: Mater Ecclesiae Convent, Vatican City (the residence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) —CC BY-SA 3.0
Despite what some folks might say, we’re not in the business of trafficking in conspiracy theories. (Although if you want a good laugh, check out this Bon Iver-style rendition of some choice rants from conspiracy-king Alex Jones. I can’t seem to stop watching it.)
Nevertheless, let me line up some dots for you and see if a picture emerges.
On Saturday, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a message read to those gathered at the funeral of the late Cardinal Meisner. In it, he said something that drew a great deal of attention:
What particularly impressed me from my last conversations with the now passed Cardinal was the relaxed cheerfulness, the inner joy and the confidence at which he had arrived. We know that this passionate shepherd and pastor found it difficult to leave his post, especially at a time in which the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age and who live and think the faith with determination. However, what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even if [sometimes] the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.
Some German speakers have since pointed out that the last sentence was slightly more conditional than our translation read. That the word “sometimes” should appear before “the boat”, as I’ve placed it in brackets above. But I find this to be a distinction without a difference. Like many, many others, I had the distinct impression when reading this that the former pope was blinking a message in Morse Code — perhaps subconsciously, perhaps intentionally, but a message nonetheless.
When I read it, my first thought was, “He’s speaking about himself here. That he views himself, too, as a “passionate shepherd and pastor who found it difficult to leave his post” but who “learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church”.
Even if the boat looks like it’s about to go under.
Whether this is a self-assessment or really just a reflection on his departed friend from Germany, it is more difficult not to read into this a critique of how the Church is being run today than it is to see it as exactly that. This notion takes on a deeper meaning when we recall that he told the five newest cardinals just weeks ago — rather cryptically — that “The Lord wins in the end.”
It is of course no surprise that everyone is talking about these comments. And it is also not a surprise, therefore, that the former pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has now gone out of his way to deny that there is any such meaning in Benedict’s words [translation by Google with some polishing from me]:
“Nonsense,” said Monsignor Georg Gänswein, “the pope emeritus was deliberately manipulated; with that sentence he was not referring to anything specific, but spoke of the situation of the Church today as in the past as a boat that does not sail in calm waters. Francis also says this. I understand that this may give rise to allusions or false impressions, but behind those words there is no attack. “
Gänswein also dismissed claims, found in some of the sillier quarters of the Internet, that the pope emeritus did not write his own words. He “wrote the message alone,” said Gänswein, from the “first to the last letter in his own hand, and no one helped him.”
But clearly, the impression his statement gave was nearly universal. Many, many Catholics saw the comments as a shot across the bow. As a man forced into a compromise position who was desperate to convey that things in the Church are not as good, in his view, as he has given the public impression he believes.
Which is, perhaps, why I find it exceedingly odd that just today — three days after the former pope’s comments began their viral circulation of the Internet — a new report has come out concerning alleged abuse of members of the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir in Germany, of which Georg Ratzinger, the 93-year-old older brother of the former pope, served as head for 30 years. The report that was issued in 2016 alleged 231 victims; the new story claims at least 547 victims. The initial abuse allegations surfaced in 2010.
Now of course, it’s likely just a coincidence. Clearly, the investigation has been ongoing for the better part of a decade. Perhaps this new report had been scheduled to come out this week all along. But the timing certainly is interesting — a former pope speaks up in a way the world interprets as a criticism of a pontificate known for its autocratic and controlling style, led by a pope a pope known as one who keeps and settles scores, and within 3 days an international news story implicating his elderly brother in a sex abuse scandal is making headlines around the globe.
If nobody is using this as leverage to pressure the former pope into silence, then the odds are simply fascinating. Make of it what you will.
This post has been updated.