The death of Benedict XVI on December 31, 2022 sparked a violent exchange of words between opposing factions in the Roman Catholic Church that climaxed with the publication of a memoir by the late pontiff’s personal secretary, Georg Gänswein.
The tell-all book, a juicy collection of hitherto unknown moments and views by the “pope emeritus” (Benedict XVI retained this title from the time of his resignation in 2013 until his death) came out on January 12. The timing was commercially perfect, if questionable given the short amount of time that had elapsed since the late pontiff’s death.
The author, an archbishop who guarded the private thoughts of Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) for 20 years, also gave several interviews criticizing some of the current pontiff’s positions. He asserted that Benedict XVI had been “very upset” when he learned of Pope Francis’ decision in 2021 to ban the old Latin Mass, which was still being held in some places despite new guidelines from the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s meetings that modernized the church and its liturgy.
Speaking on the papal plane taking him home after a six-day tour of Africa, Pope Francis remarked on this latter claim by Gänswein, calling it “tall tales.”
Francis, the world’s first Latin American pope, also took the opportunity to lash out at clerical conservatives who have been criticizing him over a variety of issues since the passing of Benedict XVI. “His death has been instrumentalized by people who want to bring water to their own mill,” he said, using an Italian expression that means to profit at the expense of others. “The people who exploit such a good person, a Holy Father of God... These people have no ethics, they are party people, not Church people.”
“The tendency to do party theology can be seen everywhere. But I leave these things to one side, because they will not prosper, they will fall under their own weight, as at other times in the history of the Church,” he told reporters. In addition to Gänswein’s memoir, there is another book that has just come out by a declared opponent of Pope Francis, Cardinal Müller, former prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Speaking during the trip back to Rome from South Sudan, Pope Francis also provided details about the good rapport he had with his predecessor and how the latter always supported him during difficult times or moments of hesitation, contradicting the version offered by his opponents, who have described a strained relationship between both men.
“I could talk to him about everything and have an exchange of opinions. He was always by my side, supporting me. If he was experiencing any difficulties, he would tell me about it and there was no problem. I once spoke about gay marriage. I said it’s a sacrament and we can’t do a sacrament, but one possibility is to ensure their well-being through civil union laws. So someone went to see Benedict XVI through a friend, to denounce me. Benedict was not scared, he called four top-level theologian cardinals and told them: ‘Explain this to me.’ They explained it to him, and that was the end of the story. It is an anecdote to show how Benedict XVI acted when there was a complaint. I consulted him for some decisions and he always agreed with me.”
Regarding homosexuality, Pope Francis also expanded on statements he made in a recent interview with the AP news agency in which he criticized the countries that criminalize the practice, although he maintained the idea that it is a sin. This time he went further and asserted that “condemning a homosexual person is a sin.” “It is estimated that around 50 countries [punish homosexuality] in one way or another. And about 10 of them include the death penalty. This is not fair. People with a homosexual tendency are children of God; God loves them and is with them. Criminalizing people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice.”
In good health
The pope, who is 86, also sought to dispel doubts about his state of health and the possibility of a resignation following in the footsteps of Benedict XVI, who decided to retire in 2013. “I am not like I was at the beginning of the pontificate. This knee is bothering me, but little by little it’s getting better. We’ll see,” said Francis, who was seen in a wheelchair during his recent trip to Africa due to his knee problems. The pope said that he has more trips planned, including one to India and another to Mongolia by the end of 2023.
In addition, he insisted on his intention to travel to Ukraine and meet with the government in Kyiv, as long as he can make it a double trip with a stop in Moscow to do the same with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Vatican has been very careful not to make any diplomatic gesture that could place it in a compromising situation when it comes to claiming a mediating role in the conflict.
These plans would appear to eliminate the notion of a possible resignation by the current pontiff who, other than his knee problems, is feeling fine as he himself has said in his latest interviews: “The Church is governed with the head, not with the knee.”
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