Benedict On the Rehab Trail

Benedict is back. We've never seen a pope emeritus before; there is no code of conduct guideline so the retirement options are wide open. This rare example is looking more and more like a campaign to justify and redeem his reputation. In doing so, he has placed himself with Donald Trump in the circle of Vladimir Putin admirers.

The Putin shout-out comes in a new book in Italian called "The Last Conversations of Benedict XVI," a collection of interviews conducted by Peter Seewald. Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli mentions the Putin reference in a "Commonweal" article about the highly biographical book (from the German edition pending its appearance in English). "Putin is a man in some way touched by the necessity of faith," Benedict is quoted as saying. "He is a realist who sees Russian suffering because of the destruction of morality."

He has stepped out far from the shadows of a Vatican convent.

The awkwardness of the transition from Benedict to Francis was largely muted by the assurance that the ex-pope would disappear into the recesses of the Vatican to lead a monkish existence away from public view. He would refrain from crashing Francis' sensational start and would rarely if ever be seen. Word was that he was too worn out to care about the limelight or invidious comparisons or anything that would rain on Francis' parade. He isn't competing in any way for the day-to-day grind but in his signature role as professor welcomes the occasion spotlight to espouse his cause.

In exchange, the wildly popular pope and the widely unpopular former pope would be best buds, comrades on the same team, smoothing over the thorny differences in their outlook, demeanor and self-adopted missions. Beneath the steely, private Benedict stirred instincts of control and conformity which had driven dissident theologians into exile, tried to contain awareness of the scope of church sex scandals and declared that Protestant churches failed the test of authenticity.

Over the past months, the resigned pontiff has been stepping out of the shadows with what appears to be an effort to clear his name of accusations against him and to place himself closer to the Catholic mainstream. For the once head of John Paul II's doctrine truth squad, who conducted a fierce attack on liberation theology, it will be a hard sell but Benedict has apparently revived sufficiently from a case of debilitating exhaustion that was widely reported at the time of his resignation, to push ahead with reputation rehabilitation.

In his remarks in a trio of recent books, he asserts that he didn't want the job, often felt paralyzed by big decisions, and didn't enjoy the papacy's demanding extrovertish side, but denies that he vacated the position out of a sense that his papacy had failed. Elsewhere he is said to express annoyance at the liberality of fellow German bishops,remind readers that he sees himself as guardian of theological correctness that sometimes causes tensions (on the birth control encyclical, for example, he agrees with the conclusion but faults the reasoning), and steers clear of examining charges that he overlooked scandal and ignored critics of his treatment of women. Not surprisingly, he thinks his former colleague, Hans Kung, went around the theological bend a long time ago.

These revelations by the only pope in modern times who's had the opportunity to revisit his papacy in public constitute a mind-boggling change in the way the world sees popes.Not long ago they were virtually sequestered, sealed away from anything resembling quotable interviews or open conversation. John Paul II began the transition by talking to reporters during flights to far flung destinations. Benedict continued that pattern but the astonishing breakthrough has been undertaken by Francis. In my view, Francis became pope largely on the strength of his gift of bonding with people of every variety. After the reticent, wary Benedict and the disastrous impact of the single issue of child abuse and hierarchical coverup, I believe the cardinals desperately sought a pope with a surfeit of charm and persuasiveness who could change the dominant story and offer an alternative picture of the church. They got it, whatever it means in the long run. He has effectively returned the papacy to earth, shedding most of what remained of the patina of otherworldliness. Nearly 150 years after popes were supernaturally encased in the doctrine of infallibility, the spell has been broken.

There have been those like me that believe Benedict's residence in Francis' back yard has had a dampening effect on Francis' willingness to carry out bolder reforms which his words have implied. Benedict has every right to his stricter constructionism and his narrow view of what can and cannot be allowed in Catholicism, but the fact that he has a former pope who has shown such contrasting canonical instincts living next door seems to be a formidable restraining influence. When the pope was a bishop in Argentina and Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict, cracked down on liberation theology, Bergoglio initially followed suit. It took years for him to see wisdom and the cause of the poor in it. As Benedict makes his case to burnish his reputation, that indirect, even covert influence could continue to restrain a reluctant actor. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here