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The Role of the Pope Emeritus And the Unity of the Church

Two weeks ago, it was announced that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, will publish a book about priestly celibacy titled “From the Depths of Our Hearts.”

The announcement and some excerpts published by the French press have caused a widespread debate among Catholic commentators. Some doubted that the pope emeritus was healthy and strong enough to co-author a book, while others have considered the book a criticism of the proposal at last fall’s Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region of accepting married men to the priesthood in the Amazon.

A few days after the publication of the book was announced, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, personal secretary to the Pope Benedict, declared that the pope emeritus had requested that his name be removed as co-author of the book. At the same time, however, Archbishop Ganswein confirmed that Pope Benedict wrote one chapter.

A synod of bishops presents proposals to the Holy Father. The pope then decides which proposals will be adopted, as well as how they will be implemented. So the book was seen by some as an attempt to influence Pope Francis’ decisions.

The present debate, of course, goes beyond the book, the debate about priestly celibacy or the proposals of the Amazon synod. The debate is really about the relationship between freedom of opinion and the authority of the pope, and the role of a pope emeritus.

At the time of his resignation almost five years ago, Pope Benedict said that he would lead a life of silence and prayer and that he wished to make himself “invisible to the world.” There have been three instances since then when the writings of the pope emeritus have come to the center of attention in Catholic circles. First, in 2016, Msgr. Dario Vigano, then Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, was accused of doctoring a private letter of Pope Benedict’s in order to show the support for Pope Francis expressed in the letter but also to hide the fact that the pope emeritus had declined to write an introduction to a series of books on Pope Francis’ theology.

Second, last spring, the pope emeritus published a 6,000-word article on the sexual abuse crisis that some saw as an effort to propose explanations — and therefore, solutions — for the crisis at odds with Pope Francis’ ideas. And finally, the publication of “From the Depths of Our Hearts” has brought Pope Benedict back to the front pages.

Pope Benedict is one of the greatest theological thinkers of the last century. His personal virtue and love for the church are legendary. The question is, should the church be deprived of his reflections and opinions on the issues of the day? On the other hand, should a pope emeritus intervene in the daily life of the church?

The role of the Supreme Pontifex is to safeguard the unity of the church. The role of a pope emeritus is still undetermined — we never had a pope emeritus before. But most probably we will have others in the future.

Pope Francis is the pope, and we have just one. Even such a saintly and brilliant man as Benedict won’t be able to control the effects of his words and opinions. When others have tried to use — or abuse — his writings to support or criticize Pope Francis, the result hasn’t helped unify the church.

Perhaps not even a word of support from the pope emeritus for the current pope helps in the long run because then his mere silence after any important decision could be seen as a muted criticism.

The experience so far indicates that Pope Benedict was right when he decided to make himself “invisible to the world.”

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2 thoughts on “The Role of the Pope Emeritus And the Unity of the Church

  1. We are sailing on uncharted waters with the first Pope Emeritus in the History of the church. I believe that Benedict XV1 Has carried out the role with the greatest of dignity and respect for the reigning pontiff. I do not accept that he should be condemned to perpetual silence. The church would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the great theological insights and pastoral experience of Pope Benedict. And to read such a well thought out and theologically sound Book from the Roman pontiff emeritus is a gift to the church

  2. The Church has a purpose–to produce saints for the Kingdom of God. The Unity of the Church is secondary to its primary purpose –ushering in the Kingdom – inspiring people to give up doing their own will to do God’s will. Pope St. John Paul famously told a guest that Mother Theresa had more power than he did in this endeavor of inspiring saints. There are a core of liberals who have their own ideas of what the Church should be about. They want to repurpose (read “new paradigm”) the Church for their various and sundry purposes. They feel threatened by Pope Benedict. The pope emeritus gained power by stepping down from the chair of St Peter. It’s just one of those paradoxes. But then again, who would predict that a man who dies a public criminal could usher in the Kingdom of God.