In the five years since Pope Benedict XVI resigned, many of the Catholic faithful have expressed a longing for his return. Most were puzzled by his abdication, the reasons for which never seemed entirely clear. Some were hurt and even resented what appeared to be abandonment by their spiritual father. Not a few have speculated, in the wake of an intensifying crisis of leadership in the Church, that perhaps Benedict – who still lives at the Vatican, wears the papal white, and is referred to as “pope” – is in fact the true pope, while Francis is an impostor.
In excerpts from private correspondence newly-revealed by the German publication Bild, we are given a glimpse into the mind of the “pope emeritus” about such concerns, and he does not appear as an entirely sympathetic figure.
In two November 2017 letters to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller – a fellow German and Church historian, and one of the four cardinals who issued the dubia to Pope Francis – the former pope addresses concerns raised by the cardinal in an October 2017 interview about his reaction to Benedict’s abdication.
According to a story today by Jason Horowitz in the New York Times, in that interview, Brandmüller said he initially thought the news of the abdication was a joke. He then expressed his consternation over the situation that the abdication and the retention of the papal title created:
“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.”
Horowitz characterizes the former pope’s initial reaction to Brandmüller’s comments as “sharp”:
“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?” …
“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.”
Horowitz says Brandmüller “apparently begged Benedict’s forgiveness and explained how much pain his resignation had caused him and like-minded conservatives,” which prompted a second letter from the pope emeritus, in which he writes:
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. In this way the pontificate itself is being devalued and conflated with the sadness about the situation of the church today.
Benedict expressed concern at the idea that Brandmüller’s comments might “ultimately promote the same mood” expressed by those concerned that having multiple pope emeriti could dilute papal authority. He also compared his situation to that of Pope Pius XII, who prepared a resignation in advance of his possible capture by the Nazis.
“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.”
The “context of the current situation” is a phrase not explained by the excerpts currently available. The entire correspondence has not yet been made public.
One hint can perhaps be found in a shared concern between the two German prelates. According to Bild, both Benedict and Brandmüller agree that the Church is in need of divine assistance:
When, given the bewildered state of the Church following the Pope’s resignation, the cardinal criticized by the Pope wrote back: “May the Lord help his Church”, Benedict replied once more – and with a remarkable sentence.
He wrote: “Let us rather pray, as you did at the end of your letter, that the Lord will come to the aid of his Church.”
Neither Brandmüller nor Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary to Benedict and prefect of the papal household to Francis, responded to requests for comment from any of the publications that sought them.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher 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. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.