VATICAN CITY (AP) — Ever since Benedict XVI announced he would become the first pope in 600 years to resign, Catholic theologians, canon lawyers and others warned of the potential confusion in having two popes living side by side in the Vatican, one reigning, the other retired but calling himself “emeritus pope” and still wearing the white cassock of the papacy.
Their worst fears came true this week.
In a saga befitting the Oscar-nominated movie “The Two Popes,” Benedict co-wrote a book reaffirming the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood. There was nothing novel with his position, but the book is coming out at the same time Pope Francis is weighing whether to ordain married men in the Amazon because of a priest shortage there.
The implications of Benedict’s intervention were grave, since the issue of priestly celibacy is perhaps the most consequential and controversial decision on the current pope’s agenda. It raised the specter of a parallel magisterium, or official church teaching, at a time when the church is already polarized between conservatives longing for the orthodox purity of Benedict’s reign and progressives cheering Francis’ liberalizing reforms.
“It’s one thing to publish, as a private citizen, a book about Jesus as Benedict did before he resigned,” the Rev. Jean-Francois Chiron, a theologian at the University of Lyon, wrote in the French Catholic daily La Croix. “It’s another thing to take sides in important, current questions facing the universal church.”
On Tuesday, Benedict distanced himself from the publication and asked to be removed as the co-author of the book, “From the Depths of Our Hearts,” which is coming out in French on Wednesday and in English next month.
Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, said there had been a “misunderstanding” with his co-author, Cardinal Robert Sarah, of Guinea, and while Benedict contributed an essay to the book, he never intended to be listed as the co-author.
That should have closed the matter, albeit imperfectly. However, the book’s English-language publisher, Ignatius Press, refused to back down, saying the book would carry Benedict’s name as co-author.
In a statement, the San Francisco-based Ignatius said it had worked from the text provided by French publisher Fayard, which listed two authors contributing a chapter apiece and a jointly written introduction and conclusion.
“Ignatius Press considers this a coauthored publication,” it said.
Ignatius, Fayard and all other publishers clearly have more to gain selling a book authored by a former pope than one written by a Vatican cardinal.
Benedict’s association with the book was surprising, given he had vowed to live “hidden from the world” when he stepped down in 2013, precisely to avoid any suggestion he still wielded papal authority.
However, the controversy made clear once again the unprecedented reality of a retired and reigning pope still has some wrinkles to be ironed out.
Some commentators have called for new rules for future retired popes, including not allowing them to be called “emeritus pope” or wear the papal white cassock, to remove all real and symbolic associations with the papacy. Instead, they said, they should be called “emeritus bishops of Rome,” wear the traditional black of the priesthood and revert back to their pre-papal names.
Others noted the lines in Benedict’s case were particularly blurred — and should be corrected in any future papal abdications — because of Gaenswein’s dual role: He is Benedict’s private secretary and the prefect of Francis’ papal household.
Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli said the main problem has been that Benedict and his entourage have been winging it for seven years, making up the office of the “emeritus pope” as they go, answerable to no one and regulated by no rules.
“Just as no one is in charge of accepting the pope’s resignation, no one was in charge either of telling Benedict XVI what he could and couldn’t wear, where he could live, what kind of entourage he could have,” Faggioli wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.
He noted retired bishops at least have official Vatican guidelines to live by.
The guidelines, which are available on the Vatican website, read: “The bishop emeritus will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life of and unity of the diocesan community.”
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a longtime Vatican watcher, said Benedict had for the most part abided by his pledge to keep a low profile and not speak out much.
“However, whenever he did, he made headlines, and discussions of how his views differed from those of Francis followed,” Reese wrote this week in Religion News Service. “This is problematic for a church that prizes unity.”
“We don’t want to imprison them, as Pope Celestine’s successor did to him, but the church needs to make clear that there is only one pope,” Reese said, referring to the last pope to abdicate.