When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the consensus among the Vatican press corps was that he was likely very ill. That turned out not to be true. This was no death-bed resignation, but a very practical decision to step aside and let someone else – someone with more energy and managerial skills – take the helm of the Church. Benedict lived nearly another ten years in seclusion and in relative good health until his death Dec. 31.
The German pope’s legacy is thus two-fold: as supreme pontiff for eight years, and as “pope emeritus” for a decade. He was retired pope for longer than any pontiff in history, and the position came without a job description. In effect, Benedict was modeling this new role, even while he and other officials have declined (so far) to codify rules of behavior for papal retirees. His experience offers several lessons for the future.
First, Benedict largely avoided what many considered the biggest hazard of papal retirement: the risk of undermining his successor through public disagreement or behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Despite sporadic efforts from some conservative quarters of the church, Benedict refused to be cast as a parallel authority to Pope Francis. Instead, on several occasions, he publicly expressed his support for Francis and his agenda of a more mercy-oriented Church. Benedict made good on his promise to be obedient to his successor and more than once spoke of a “deep communion and friendship” with Francis.
Relatedly, some observers feared that the presence of a retired pope living in the Vatican – looking over the new pope’s shoulder, as it were – would cramp the style of his successor. Clearly, that didn’t happen, either. Pope Francis sometimes asked Benedict for his input, and was never intimidated by this arrangement.
Less successful was Benedict’s expressed aim of living in isolation, “hidden from the world.” That proved impossible. Although he lived quietly and without public appearances in a Vatican City convent, Benedict frequently met with visitors, wrote theological articles and even gave occasional interviews to newspapers and other media.
His writings and comments focused primarily on the past, rather than on current debates over church governance or papal politics. But that distinction was never absolute. In 2019, he penned a 6,000-word letter on the origins of the sex abuse crisis, which he blamed in large part on the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s, and on what he called the weakening of Catholic moral theology.
In a 2021 interview, Benedict criticized what he called a lack of faith within church institutions in his native German, at a time when German church leaders were hotly debating pastoral directions and strategies. The same year, he spoke briefly about Covid, about U.S. President Joseph Biden’s position on abortion, and about Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq, although those comments were too bland to demand much media attention.
On a topic that obviously struck a nerve – his own resignation – Benedict repeatedly defended his decision against criticism from some traditionalist corners, saying his “conscience is clear” and that it left no confusion among the faithful. “There is only one pope,” he said.
Most of the retired pope’s written output came in the form of brief letters to conferences, or book introductions that seemed to be written as favors to petitioners. In 2017, he wrote a foreword to a book by Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Vatican official who had sparred with Pope Francis on liturgical issues. Benedict wrote that with Cardinal Sarah, “a master of silence and of interior prayer, the liturgy is in good hands.” The episode illustrated how the words of a retired pope, even if unintended, can sound like side-taking.
More embarrassing, a 2020 book purportedly co-authored by Cardinal Sarah and Pope Benedict offered essays on “priesthood, celibacy and the crisis in the Catholic Church.” Not surprisingly, it strongly defended the tradition of priestly celibacy and warned against any weakening of this rule. Its publication came at a time when Pope Francis was considering a relaxation of the celibacy requirement in certain circumstances.
Shortly before the book’s official publication date, Benedict asked that his name be removed as author. The Vatican acknowledged that Benedict had sent the cardinal an essay, but never contemplated a dual-author book. For his part, Cardinal Sarah said that claim was “defamation” and he made public several letters from Benedict that appeared to back him up. The book is still sold with Benedict’s name and photo on the cover.
This snafu and others raised questions about the role of Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who has acted both as Benedict’s personal secretary and as Francis’ prefect of the pontifical household. The idea was that Ganswein would be a perfect liaison figure between the two men. But as the communications gatekeeper for Benedict, he has sometimes found himself in the middle of public relations missteps.
Ganswein no doubt helped Benedict respond to a 2022 German church report that faulted then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s handling of four sex abuse cases in Munich from 1977 to 1982. In a letter, the retired pope acknowledged mistakes and asked forgiveness, but denied personal wrongdoing. His failure to express a direct apology to victims was widely criticized.
That incident highlighted another truth about papal retirement: when a pope’s previous actions, or inactions, come up for criticism or review, he may be required to respond.
The big question is whether Benedict’s experiences as emeritus will lead to a more systematic formulation of the role and responsibilities of a retired pope. Last summer, Pope Francis hinted that he may want to weigh in on the question, perhaps with a document. Francis said that, if he decided to retire, he would do so as “bishop emeritus of Rome” (not “pope emeritus”) and would not continue to live in the Vatican. He left open the possibility that he would move to the former papal residence of Saint John Lateran in Rome, and spend his days hearing confessions and visiting the sick.
In other words, Pope Francis would do retirement differently. There’s been talk among canon lawyers about establishing ways to govern the role of retired pope – for one thing, by channeling all his communication through the Vatican press office. But it’s hard to imagine Francis abiding by that kind of control; he doesn’t even do so as pope. For now, a retired pope does not occupy an “office” that can be controlled by a set of rules, and so can make his own.