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Throughout his 10-year pontificate, Pope Francis has made headlines on topics ranging from immigration to sexual abuse to the risks of modern technology. But one issue that has mostly flown under the media radar is the pope’s shift in church teaching on nuclear weapons.

In a nutshell, this pope has moved beyond the church’s provisional acceptance of nuclear deterrence as a morally acceptable strategy. Instead, he has repeatedly condemned the possession itself of nuclear weapons as immoral – perhaps most notably at a 2017 conference on nuclear disarmament, but on many occasions since then.

In a message last year, he summarized the church’s position:

Nuclear weapons are a costly and dangerous liability. They represent a “risk multiplier” that provides only an illusion of a “peace of sorts”. Here, I wish to reaffirm that the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral. Trying to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security and a “balance of terror”, sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust inevitably ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any possible form of real dialogue. Possession leads easily to threats of their use, becoming a sort of “blackmail” that should be repugnant to the consciences of humanity.

Against the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia war, these words garnered some attention in the global press. For the most part, however, the church’s changing position on nuclear disarmament has been ignored, both by governments and the media.

With this week’s commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester and Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne are making a “pilgrimage of peace” to Japan, hoping to raise the issue of disarmament in light of the pope’s recent statements.

As Archbishop Wester said in a recent interview with National Catholic Reporter, it’s important for people to realize that nuclear deterrence is not an effective strategy, but a “dangerous game.”

Clearly the church is moving away from the position, expressed by Pope John Paul II in 1982, that nuclear deterrence is morally acceptable “not as an end in itself, but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.” At that time, John Paul described this teaching as an “interim ethic.” Forty years later, as more nations are developing such weapons and major powers are upgrading theirs, it appears the interim is over. The church’s experts now view the strategy of nuclear “balance” as a major impediment to real disarmament.

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.

Pope Francis weighed in recently on the economic impact of COVID-19, saying the pandemic underscored the need for a “universal basic wage” to protect the world’s laborers and their families.

Addressing low wage-earners, the pope said they were facing a “time of danger.”

“The problems that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live day to day, without any type of legal safeguards,” he said. Without a guaranteed salary, “the quarantines are for you are unsustainable.”

“Perhaps the time has come to consider a universal basic wage that acknowledges and dignifies the essential work you perform, capable of guaranteeing the ideal of no worker without rights,” he said.

The suggestion came in a letter April 12 to the World Meeting of Popular Movements. It was a reminder that this pope views the global economy as problematic in the extreme – an system that he says is centered largely on “idolatry of money” and excessive consumerism.

“Our civilization, so competitive and individualistic, with its frenetic pace of production and consumption, its excessive luxuries and disproportionate profits for the few, needs to slow down, take stock and renew itself,” the pope said in his letter.

The economic disparities are being aggravated during the current pandemic, he said.

“If the struggle against COVID is a war, then you are the invisible army that is fighting in the most dangerous trenches,” he said.

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