When the shadow of Benedict XVI hovered over the pontificate of Pope Francis

It didn’t take long for the first theories to emerge. Benedict XVI had barely announced his resignation from office when, in 2013, the first challenges to the decision of the German pope emerged. According to these theses coming from traditionalist spheres, the decision of the former Cardinal Ratzinger could not be valid, and Francis, therefore, should not be considered as the pope.

But the first months were also those of the construction of another thesis, much more serious, this time. That of the “co-pontificate” (the copapato, in Italian). In summary: there were, in the Vatican, two popes, a praying pope and a reigning pope, each embodying part of the role of bishop of Rome. Even though Benedict XVI he himself regularly challenged this idea, it is true that the pope emeritus occupied, during the first years of the pontificate of Francis, a very special place.

First requested by François

Installed in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, a small house in the heart of the Vatican gardens, protected by an electric grid, Benedict XVI was first widely solicited by Francois. This was the case in the summer of 2013, when the pope emeritus saw arriving on his desk a draft interview of his successor with a Jesuit magazine, Catholic Civilization. Francis wanted to consult Benedict on this programmatic interview which would mark the beginning of his pontificate. A few days later, the pope emeritus sent him four pages of observations, as revealed by the journalist Massimo Franco, in The Monastery.

This relationship between the two men has however deteriorated over time, when Benedict XVI refused, in 2018, to preface a book on the theology of Francis. It is from this date that he gradually becomes, and very largely against his will, the catalyst for his successor’s discontent. In his book, Massimo Franco tells how much “the Monastery” has become the place of visit for skeptics, even anti-Francois. Or how some, such as Cardinal Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until 2017, often came there to seek a form of consolation, not understanding the Latin American pope.

silence and prayer

The pope emeritus, who was committed to silence and prayer, has however always been seen, by François and his entourage, as the cause of possible turbulence. Benedict XVI has, in fact, never stopped receiving guests, in the house where he lived with four nuns and Bishop Georg Gänswein, his eternal private secretary. Guests who sometimes extracted confidences from him on the most sensitive subjects.

But above all, the pope emeritus never really stopped writing or speaking out. In 2018, he published an article in the journal Communion on the Church and the Jews, then another on sexual abusein which he explicitly links these scandals to the “1968 Revolution”, the appearance of sex education in schools and the trivialization of pornography.

New break

In 2020, it is in a book, signed with Cardinal Robert Sarah, that he defends the celibacy of priests, a few weeks before the opening of the Synod on the Amazon, where the subject was about to be fiercely debated. A work which had also provoked a lively controversy, the private secretary of the pope emeritus announcing that he had “never approved any project” of a book with Cardinal Sarah, while the publisher, Fayard, maintained the contrary.

This controversy marks a new rupture, concretized by the setting aside by François of Mgr Gänswein, hitherto prefect of the Pontifical Household, in charge of the management of the public agenda of the pope. The latter remained present with Benedict XVI until his last days.

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