Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Once and Future Former Pontiff(s)

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 12, 2022

Benedict XVI has been in the news this week—not because of anything he has done or said, but because of what has been said about him.

First a notorious Italian “journalist,” Tomasso De Benedetti, decided that it would be fun to post a false story that the retired Pope had died. To give the report more credibility, he made the bogus “announcement” on a phony Twitter account, set up under the name of Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference. Naturally, the report caused an internet sensation, until the hoax was exposed.

De Benedetti has done this before. He had posted a bogus report of the Pope’s death back in 2012, when Benedict was still in office. (Hat tip to Pillar.) But ten years later the false story was quicker to spread, because the retired Pope is now 95, in very frail health. Everyone knows that the real sad announcement will be coming fairly soon. Which makes the hoax more believable, and the prank more heartless.

But the next day’s news brought more attention to the retired Pontiff, because his successor, Pope Francis, in his latest public interview, contrasted his own plans for retirement (if he ever does retire) with the way Benedict has lived since he stepped down.

[Here let me pause to make a couple of observations:

  • First, I mention that this subject arose in the Pope’s latest interview. A decade or two ago, it was headline news whenever the Sovereign Pontiff submitted to an interview. Now it almost merits headline coverage if a week goes by without a papal interview. You can judge for yourself whether or not that is a change for the better.
  • Second, I should emphasize—in light of another set of rumors floating around Rome—that Pope Francis did not say that he plans to retire. On the contrary, he has booked a busy schedule of travel for the remainder of this year, after having backed away from public appearances for a few weeks because of a very painful knee condition.]

No, when he spoke about retirement in this interview, the Pontiff was speaking about how he thought it should be done—if and when he does it. By approaching the subject that way, inevitably he was comparing himself with Pope-emeritus Benedict. All comparisons are potentially odious, and this was no exception.

Pope Francis did not criticize his predecessor directly. Quite the contrary. He said that Benedict’s resignation “went rather well, because he’s a saintly and discreet man, and he handled it well.” But Francis said that “in the future, things should be delineated more.” That was enough; reporters took the cue, and pointed out—as in this AP account, that some critics see the presence of a former Pontiff inside the Vatican as a source of confusion and disunity.

Pope Francis played into that narrative (intentionally or not—you decide) by saying that if he resigns, he won’t live at the Vatican. Fair enough; he doesn’t want to cause confusion. But is he implying that Benedict, who has remained so scrupulously silent since his retirement, is causing confusion?

Then Pope Francis introduced some complications of his own. He said that since he would be the emeritus Bishop of Rome, he should live somewhere in Rome, helping out at a parish. He responded favorably to a suggestion that he might live at the basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the official church of the Bishop of Rome.

Now wait a minute. St. John Lateran (not St. Peter’s basilica, contrary to popular belief) is indeed the seat of the Bishop of Rome. But not the former Bishop of Rome—which Francis would become after retirement.

Let’s face it: a certain amount of confusion—or at least a bit of awkwardness—is unavoidable, if there are two Popes—one retired, one active—living in the same city. Would it really make much difference if the retired Pope moved three miles across town? I doubt it.

Another possibility springs immediately to mind. But Pope Francis said in that same interview that he would not want to return to his native Argentina to live there in retirement. And that raises another question. In 2013, he told his interviewers, he was planning to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and move into an apartment there. Instead Pope Benedict resigned, and the Argentine cardinal traveled to Rome for a conclave, and he has never returned.

And why not? In his years as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has traveled all around the world: to Korea and the Philippines, to Egypt and the Holy Land, to Kenya and Uganda and the Central African Republic. In the Western Hemisphere he has visited the US and Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Colombia. Later this month he plans a trip to Canada. Yet he has never made the time for a trip back to his own country. Therein lies one of the enduring mysteries of this very curious pontificate.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 15, 2022 4:40 PM ET USA

    It’s obvious from his actions if not from his softly spoken words that Francis does not respect Benedict the 16th. If he respected him he would not so blithely overturn so many of his works and deeds. Respect is measured by deeds not by mealymouth words.

  • Posted by: Sciamej1913 - Jul. 14, 2022 9:52 PM ET USA

    He is probably NOT welcome back in Argentina!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jul. 14, 2022 5:18 PM ET USA

    Maby there are too many skeletons in Argentina.

  • Posted by: richg - Jul. 14, 2022 3:26 PM ET USA

    "A decade or two ago, it was headline news whenever the Sovereign Pontiff submitted to an interview. Now it almost merits headline coverage if a week goes by without a papal interview. You can judge for yourself whether or not that is a change for the better." I say, discretion is the better part of valor.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Jul. 14, 2022 5:45 AM ET USA

    ". . . very curious pontificate." Phil, you have a proclivity for dramatic understatement. I can think of more accurate words than "curious" in this context. Horrendous, faith destroying, apocalyptic, demonic, nightmarish, etc.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 13, 2022 9:44 AM ET USA

    "Some critics see the presence of a former Pontiff inside the Vatican as a source of confusion and disunity" - Benedict's silent presence is like a voice of conscience and reason during a papacy riddled with confusion and disunity.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jul. 12, 2022 5:31 PM ET USA

    Don't bishops usually retire in their last diocese, because canon law dictates that the last diocese is responsible for taking care of them?