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  • John Thavis

The Vatican has a retired pope in residence

When Pope Benedict announced that after retirement he planned to live in a monastic setting inside the Vatican, I was one of those who saw potential problems in the arrangement.

Too much contact and cooperation between the former pope and the current pope would give the impression of a “tag team” pontificate, I thought. On the other hand, with Benedict living practically next door, Pope Francis might feel compelled to ask his advice on important issues – and if so, would the new pope feel free to reject that advice and go his own way?

Today, as Pope Benedict moves into his Vatican rooms, I’m less inclined to worry about all that.

It seems clear that the two men will indeed be communicating. Just on a human level, it would be hard to imagine Pope Francis treating the retired pope as some sort of “untouchable.” Francis paid Benedict a warm visit in Castel Gandolfo in March and was there to welcome him today at the Vatican.

And it makes sense that the new pope would want to hear the opinions and advice of the former pope on a wide variety of questions – including, of course, that famous report on Vatileaks and power struggles in the Vatican, a report that Benedict commissioned late in his pontificate and then left for his successor.

None of this consultation should cause a crisis in the church. On the contrary, I think it will help the church better understand the papacy, more as an office and less as a sacred status. Benedict set that office aside and is no longer pope, and whatever advice or reflections he may offer today come from a “private citizen,” so to speak.

So why Pope Benedict’s insistence that he will be “hidden from the world”? Because I think he also understands that whatever his working relationship with Pope Francis, he’ll have to greatly limit his other encounters, his public statements and even, perhaps, his published writings.

Benedict is keenly aware of how information travels through back channels at the Vatican and through electronic media around the world. Even an offhand remark by the retired pope – say, to a group of German Catholics or to a cardinal over tea – could echo within the hierarchy or across the blogosphere, and possibly be construed as criticism or divergence from the current pope.

Allegiance to Benedict still runs strong in some church circles, and there are those who would not hesitate to invoke the retired pope’s supposed opinion to impede or slow the projects of Pope Francis. Precisely to cut off that possibility, I expect Benedict to be true to his word and maintain a prudent silence.

What’s intriguing is that there is still no attempt to codify any of this, and no official job description for a retired pope. Benedict is doing it his way, but the next time may be quite different.

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