It’s a new interview from an old pope who had promised silence, but has offered anything but. In a new conversation with Corriere Della Serra‘s Massimo Franco, we get yet another glimpse into the mind and life of Joseph Ratzinger behind the walls of Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, and per usual, it offers a little insight, but even more enigma.
The interview is in Italian, and relatively brief. Edward Pentin has translated excerpts of it for the National Catholic Register here; for my purposes, I’ll mostly be using Google translate for a quick and dirty look at the content of the discussion. Some nuance may thereby be lost, but no doubt this will go on the pile of semantically-debated utterances from the former pope, who seems intent on never speaking clearly on the matter on which only he can provide clarity: his abdication. Assertions from journalists that he is emphatic on this or that point do nothing, unfortunately, to decrypt the non-specificity of his words.
Here’s the most significant chunk of his discussion of this issue, still hotly contested in various quarters of the Catholic internet:
Meeting Benedict is rare, especially in recent times. And even more unusual is the fact that you agree to address one of the most traumatic topics for the life of the Catholic Church in recent centuries. His clarification on the uniqueness of the Papacy is obvious to him but not for some sectors of conservative Catholicism more irreducible in hostility to Francis. For this reason, he reiterates that “the Pope is only one,” weakly tapping the palm of his hand on the armrest: as if he wanted to give the words the strength of a definitive affirmation.
It is significant: he delivers the message to the Courier on the eve of February 28, the same day eight years ago when his renunciation of the Papacy, announced on February 11, became effective . After a long time, the disorientation, the amazement, the gossip that accompanied that epochal gesture still stagnate. And Benedict seems to want to exorcise them. We ask if in recent years he has often thought about that day. He nods. “It was a difficult decision. But I took it in full consciousness, and I think I did well. Some of my slightly ‘fanatic’ friends are still angry, they did not want to accept my choice. I think of the conspiracy theories that followed it: who said it was the fault of the Vatileaks scandal, some of a conspiracy by the gay lobby, some of the case of the conservative Lefebvrian theologian Richard Williamson . They don’t want to believe in a conscious choice. But my conscience is fine.”
He is, contextually, rather obviously indicating that he is no longer the pope; that he was not coerced; that he has no regrets. But because he says things like, “The pope is only one,” those “fanatics” (as he calls them) will not accept it as meaning “the only pope is Francis.”
And we can see that this is already happening in the Italian-language press. As I went bopping about the internet looking to see if anyone had translated the bulk of this interview into English, I came across this piece by Andrea Cionci at Libero Quotidiano. In it, he says exactly what I was thinking someone would say:
The pope is one, very well. WHICH OF THE TWO THEN? Ratzinger does not explain it.
If you reread Franco’s article carefully, nowhere does Ratzinger say: “Bergoglio is the only true pope”. Which would have been the most obvious, simple way to resolve a long-standing dispute .
Therefore, if desired, Benedict’s declarations could also be perfectly interpreted as referring to himself as well: “The pope is only one and he is the one who has kept the Petrine munus , that is I.”
And so, once again, Benedict’s attempts to quell debate about his resignation have missed the mark entirely. This will not tamp down the dispute he seems so annoyed with; it will, on the contrary, only enliven it.
There are two other topics that arise in the interview that are worth noting. The first is more implicit: the question of the moral viability of COVID vaccines. Benedict doesn’t discuss the matter directly, but Franco notes that Benedict has, like “most of the inhabitants of Vatican City,” already received both doses. The debate over the ethical viability of these vaccines, whether they were developed with or tested on fetal cell lines — the latter distinction opening a huge can of worms considering the lengthy list of common medications from ibuprofen to antihistamines that have been tested in this way — falls mostly into two camps: the Bishop Stricklands and Bishop Schneiders of the world, who insist on a “no concatenation” policy, and the CDF under Ratzinger in 2005 (and reiterated again when he was pope in 2008), which made clear that there are ethically permissible uses for such vaccines under certain conditions. It seems that the Ratzingerian logic (which strikes me as sound moral reasoning on questions of double effect, despite its newfound unpopularity) has held true, at least for him.
The second issue is related: Benedict categorizes President Biden as “Catholic and observant” and “personally against abortion”. He then says, “As president, he tends to present himself in continuity with the line of the Democratic Party. …. And on gender policy we still don’t really understand what his position is.”
For a pope described as being informed — Franco notes that he reads several newspapers daily in Italian and German — this is a very odd characterization indeed. If showing up for Mass with cameras running makes Biden observant, I guess he’s observant, but I don’t buy for a minute that he is “personally against abortion,” or that even if he were, it would make a lick of difference considering his policy positions. Neither do I believe his views on gender policy are ambiguous; he has nominated a transgender man to be assistant secretary of Health and Human Services – a man who advocates procedures that would allow children to make irrevocable changes in the process of “transitioning” to a sex different than the one they were born into. Just watch Senator Rand Paul grilling Dr. “Rachel” Levine on this issue if you want to get a sense of what kind of statement this Biden nomination has sent on “gender policy”:
Sen. Rand Paul to Dr. Rachel Levine:
"You're willing to let a minor take things to prevent their puberty, and you think they get back?… You have permanently changed them… There’s no long term studies. We don’t know what happens to them.”pic.twitter.com/a7AJkInfPG
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) February 25, 2021
Now, we can attribute these failures of judgment or knowledge (or both) to the former pope being a very frail, 93 year-old man. I have a very frail, 88-year old man living in my house, and it’s clear that all the circuits are no longer connecting as they once did. It’s just one of the inescapable ravages of old age, and we will all likely face them eventually. But we are also given an assessment of the man that tries to assure us of the contrary — namely, that frailty and physical weakness have not dimmed a powerful intellect:
The sentences come out with a dropper, the voice is a breath, it comes and goes . And Monsignor Gaenswein in some rare passages repeats and “translates”, while Benedict nods in approval. The mind remains clear, quick as the eyes, alert and lively.
It would be helpful to know which thing to believe, since we are being asked to believe two seemingly contradictory things.
I suspect that the truth is that Benedict is both less informed than we are told and has also always been softer around the theological edges and more moderate in his views than the misapplied labels of “Panzerkardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler” were designed to indicate. A confluence of factors that could, perhaps, explain his odd take on current American politics. (Perhaps the cultural barrier of trying to understand these politics from afar may play a role as well.)
Nevertheless, it is sad to hear the “observant” and “personally opposed” lines coming from a former pope of Ratzinger’s stature; it will certainly only embolden the Leftcaths, who will use such a claim to browbeat their more conservative counterparts: “See, even Benedict XVI agrees that Biden is an observant Catholic!”
In the end, we are left with another interview that resolves nothing, but raises, once again, many questions about the “Pope Emeritus” and, perhaps more to the point, the man behind that novel title. Had he truly committed himself to total silence, as he promised, it would have been a less bitter pill to swallow than the one we got: silence on some things that matter very much, but noisy interference on things that don’t. The end result is the portrait of a man willing to speak up, but not clearly, and often not at all on the issues of greatest import to Catholics. I am left recalling the words of his 5th-century predecessor, Pope Felix III:
“An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed…. He who does not oppose an evident crime is open to the suspicion of secret complicity.”
We can chalk up a number of his missteps to old age, but reminders of his abdication — not just of his office, but also his duty to the truth — are more difficult to explain away.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.