ROME — Ever since Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in six centuries to abdicate the papacy, transitioning to a life of near seclusion in a Vatican City monastery, there have been questions about how the notion of two living popes would impact the Roman Catholic Church.
Although many people hoped to hear from Benedict amid new allegations that a coverup of sexual misconduct reached the highest levels of the church, he has established that an ex-pope should maintain a vow of silence about church matters — even during crises and even though he is particularly well positioned to affirm or knock down the accusations.
Some Vatican watchers and insiders say the mere fact of Benedict’s 2013 abdication has made the modern papacy more vulnerable, emboldening voices of dissent. They say it’s hard to imagine a letter like the one released last week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, provoking Pope Francis with a call to resign, without Benedict having created the possibility that modern popes might give up their seats before death.
Try as he might to stay out of the fray, Benedict has been used as a symbol of resistance for a segment of traditionalists who oppose elements of Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s vision of Catholicism as more aligned with theirs.
“He won’t stop the [Francis] revolution, but his presence reminds you — me, everyone — that another way is possible,” said Marcello Pera, a friend of Benedict and former president of the Italian Senate.
Once known as “God’s Rottweiler,” Benedict was not embraced by Catholics worldwide during his eight-year pontificate. But he won admiration among those who respected the depth of his academic work and his conviction that church teachings shouldn’t bend with the times.
At 91, Benedict still largely resembles the firm theologian who stepped down five years ago, when he leaned into a microphone, offered a brief message in Latin and shocked the Roman Catholic Church. He still dresses in papal white. He chose not to revert to his given name, Joseph Ratzinger. Friends say he is frail — he moves with the help of a walker — but he is mentally sharp. In a letter earlier this year to the Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, he said he was “on a pilgrimage toward Home.”
Some historians say that, for all of Benedict’s theological work, it is his resignation that will most come to define his legacy. Before his abdication, no pope since Gregory XII in 1415 had been willing to step down. Pope Paul VI had at least considered it, according to a book collecting his letters and documents. But Paul VI, who died in 1978, feared that doing so could open future popes to factional fighting, according to an essay by Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest. Pope John Paul II reportedly prepared a letter of resignation to submit in the event of a debilitating condition; he never used it. Instead, his physical faculties declined painfully and publicly as he dealt with Parkinson’s disease.
In 2013, after eight years as pope, Benedict upended the rules of the modern papacy. He said he was aware of the “seriousness of this act.” He cited deterioration of his “mind and body.” Some close to Benedict have said he feared becoming an incapacitated leader like John Paul II, with whom he worked closely for years. But rumors have lingered about other contributing factors, including the possibility of blackmail or pressure relating to scandals within the Vatican bureaucracy. Benedict in 2014 wrote to an Italian website, Vatican Insider, saying speculation about his resignation was “simply absurd.”
Officially, papal resignations are only valid if or when performed “freely.”
It will take years still to fully account for the ramifications of Benedict’s resignation, but Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Vatican journalist at La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper, said even the visual has been striking and disorienting — with two men in papal white inside the Vatican walls.
“It’s kind of a duplication of the image,” Tornielli said. “It’s a total novelty in the history of the church.”
Benedict has sought to relinquish his public life. He receives occasional visitors in his home, where he lives with a cat, is surrounded by books and has a view from the window of St. Peter’s dome. He goes on afternoon walks in the Vatican garden. Official photos occasionally show him meeting with Francis. He has attended public mass infrequently.
Elio Guerriero, a Benedict biographer who has known the pope emeritus since the 1980s, says he is content in his quiet daily life.
“His outlook has become sweeter and more affectionate,” Guerriero said.
Those who have visited Benedict since he abdicated say he has also tried to avoid fostering insurrection. Four years ago, after a hint that Francis might adopt a more relaxed stance on Communion for divorced Catholics, a small group of cardinals asked Benedict to intervene, according to the mainstream Italian daily La Repubblica. Benedict told them that he wasn’t the pope and shouldn’t be involved — and afterward privately alerted Francis.
Pera, who co-wrote a book with Benedict, tells a similar story about the ex-pope’s unwillingness to talk about his successor’s moves. Pera said he visited Benedict shortly after Francis was elected and brought up his misgivings about the new pope — how he seemed more political and willing to tailor his teachings to a secular audience.
“I am worried about the church,” Pera said.
“The church is of Jesus Christ,” he remembers Benedict replying. “You shouldn’t be worried.”
Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has said publicly that Benedict and Francis are not in a “competitive relationship.”
After the release of the Viganò letter, Gänswein did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Washington Post. He told a German publication that Benedict would not comment, now or in the future, on the letter.
Benedict’s silence in this case has been in keeping with his effort to maintain a low profile. But it’s also noteworthy because the letter specifically cites Benedict and Francis as knowing for years about the sexual misconduct of a now-disgraced prelate, Theodore McCarrick.
Viganò alleges that Benedict, in 2009 or 2010, privately levied sanctions on McCarrick — the former Archbishop of Washington and one of the most well-known figures in the U.S. church — after years of warnings about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct. The letter also said that Francis “did not take into account” those sanctions and instead made McCarrick his “trusted counselor.”
Some elements of the account do not seem to hold up. The sanctions Viganò describes supposedly banned McCarrick from travel and public meetings, but McCarrick continued to speak regularly and travel overseas.
Two acquaintances of Benedict said that he was a feeble manager as pontiff and that even if he had imposed the sanctions, he might not have had the wherewithal to enforce them.
“He never had the vocation to rule, to command,” said Vittorio Messori, a friend who met with Benedict last year. “He doesn’t know how to rule.”
Other Benedict allies go so far as to interpret the former pope’s silence as an affirmation of Viganò’s account. The letter portrays Benedict in more sympathetic terms than it does Francis and points out that, as a cardinal, Ratzinger had “repeatedly denounced the corruption” inside the church.
“It would be very easy for Pope Benedict to say, ‘There is an attack on the Holy Father, and I want to condemn this attack,’ ” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation, a critic of Francis and an acquaintance of Viganò. “Right now, one pope can speak to defend the other. But he hasn’t.”
Despite Benedict’s general silence, or perhaps because of it, some conservatives have latched on to the pope emeritus as a symbolic ally. A mix of academics, journalists and Vatican officials have regularly held conferences aimed at criticizing Francis — and sometimes praising Benedict’s teachings. Viganò spoke during at least one of those events.
In a new book, a compilation of interviews, a foreword written by the former president of the Vatican Bank exalts “the greatness of our beloved Joseph Ratzinger.” Among the interviewees are two journalists who consulted with Viganò in advance of his letter’s release.
But even among the crowd that knows Benedict, there is a steady guessing game about what he is actually thinking.
Pera said he has not brought up Francis again in his meetings with Benedict, in which they have talked about philosophy and human rights. “The subject is forbidden,” he said.
“So what should I understand from this?” Pera continued. “He probably doesn’t like what is happening. But we don’t know.”
Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.