Benedict XVI’s resignation and his enigmatic life as Pope Emeritus have inspired ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s time to put them to rest

On December 8, Pope Francis pushed open the Holy Door of the Basilica of St Peter’s. He thus became the first person to walk through one of the “Doors of Mercy” in cathedrals and churches all over the world that symbolise forgiveness for Catholics in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

And the second person to walk through? Benedict XVI, dressed in the white cassock reserved for popes alone.

Five years ago, no one could have imagined this surreal spectacle: a reigning Pope embracing a “Pope Emeritus” inside St Peter’s. Now Catholics are getting used to the notion of a Pope Emeritus. Whether they are comfortable with it, or understand what it means, is less easy to say.

Benedict is, like most 88 year-olds, very infirm; visibly more so than he was on February 11, 2013, when he shocked his cardinals by telling them, out of the blue and in Latin, that he was vacating the chair of Peter.

We know he is infirm because, contrary to expectations, he has not become invisible to the Church he once led. He continues to make rare appearances in semi-public settings – most recently, at a concert of German Christmas music in the studios of Vatican Radio.

Benedict has said very little since his retirement and not once criticised Pope Francis. But his rare utterances have been fascinating, all of them the purest Ratzinger, and it’s small wonder that his words have been pored over by Catholics intrigued by his enigmatic presence.

Mysteries and rumour surround the frail, almost doll-like figure of the Pope Emeritus. They raise questions that I’ll try to answer.

What follows contains lots of speculation, for which I don’t apologise. No one can understand the workings of the Catholic Church without speculating. Senior prelates, Vatican officials and their press officers are as secretive, evasive and sometimes untruthful as their secular equivalents in Westminster, Brussels and Washington DC.

1. Why did Benedict XVI resign? This is regarded by many commentators as the greatest mystery in recent Church history. Not by me, however. The simple answer to the question is that the Pope felt that, at his age and with his health beginning to give way, he wasn’t up to the job. This isn’t a complete answer, because there are things we can’t know. If you’re looking for a “final straw”, then you can take your pick between the VatiLeaks affair, the machinations of Benedict’s enemies and the pope’s creeping awareness that he was losing his powers of concentration. Maybe he had a fit of despair brought on by the realisation that he’d inherited the papacy too late to implement long-term reforms while firefighting paedophile and financial scandals. If Ratzinger had become pope at 75, these challenges would have been less terrifying. He didn’t because St John Paul II insisted on holding office while incapacitated – the first pontiff to do so for a very long time. Perhaps this persuaded Benedict to take the plunge. I doubt that we shall ever know, so let’s move on.

2) Would Benedict have resigned if he knew Francis would succeed him? Purely hypothetical but interesting. Benedict must have known there was a chance that Cardinal Bergoglio would succeed him. My guess is that when the Argentinian emerged on the balcony the Pope Emeritus was dismayed but concluded that God works in mysterious ways. A more interesting, albeit even more hypothetical, question is whether Benedict would have resigned if he’d known Francis would call a synod that threw open the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion.

3. Why did Benedict assume the style and dignity of “Pope Emeritus”? This is a puzzle. Benedict, by his own choice, is no longer the Pope. He is – and regards himself as – an ex-pope. Why, then, did he choose a title that included the P-word? He’s an academic, and the obvious analogy is with a professor emeritus who has retired. Professors emeritus, however, are addressed as professor so-and-so. Benedict is not called Pope Benedict, though he has kept the XVI and is still His Holiness. This is confusing, and the Pope Emeritus now seems to recognise this: without relinquishing the title, he’s let it be known that he wishes to be referred to as “Father Benedict”. Why didn’t he opt for this solution at the time? In a conversation with the German journalist Jorg Bremer in 2014, he said that this was what he wanted all along but that “I was too weak at that point to enforce it.” That’s odd. Who was telling the old man, still pope, that he must assume the grander title? Mgr Georg Gänswein, his personal secretary? Gänswein says he knew about Benedict’s planned resignation “for some time” and failed to talk him out of it. Another possibility is that Benedict has been leant on by an ally of Francis to play down his papal title.

4. Why does Benedict wear white? Benedict’s decision to dress as pope – minus the little mozzetta cape around his shoulders, and switching from red to brown shoes – sends a signal to the faithful. But what signal? We don’t need reminding that he used to be the Supreme Pontiff. My theory is that, by remaining in papal white, Benedict communicates that although he is an ex-pope he is also a living successor of Peter. It would be fascinating to know whether Benedict feels that he retains some spiritual status or responsibility by virtue of having held his office.

5. Do some Catholics believe there are two popes? The Italian journalist Antonio Socci has proposed that Benedict XVI’s resignation was not canonically valid because he was forced out. He and other conspiracy theorists therefore believe there is only one pope, but he is not called Francis. This is nonsense. As for the “two popes” business, no one thinks there are two reigning pontiffs. But, to repeat, there is confusion. A few weeks ago I heard a Scottish priest, an old left-winger from the missions, refer to “our reigning pope and our pensioner pope”. I’ve also heard a foreign priest quietly insert a reference to Benedict into the prayer for the Pope in the Eucharistic Prayer. I’m sorry to labour the point, but this wouldn’t be happening if Benedict did not still dress in papal white. On the other hand, the impact of this confusion is modest, for the following reason.

6. Does Benedict still seek to wield influence in the Church? He does not, except in minor ways (see below). He has not “let it be known” that he thinks this or that about the doctrinal controversy raging over Communion for the divorced. Perhaps he has resisted prompting to do so. The Pope Emeritus has promised the actual Pope not to interfere in the life of the Church and he is a man of his word. But let us ask a slightly different question.

7. Is Benedict XVI anxious to preserve his legacy? There are two clues that the answer to this is yes. In July 2015, Benedict gave an address at Castel Gandolfo on the subject of music and its relationship to the divine. The speech is a small masterpiece that, by identifying “a dimension of reality that can no longer find answers in discourses alone”, represents an important development in the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger. The ex-pope is too fragile to write books, we’re told, but as recently as last summer he was still working on the “hermeneutic of continuity” that formed the theme of his pontificate. The other clue is a letter to traditionalists in October 2014 in which he said he was “very glad that the Usus antiquus now lives in full peace within the Church, also among the young, supported and celebrated by great Cardinals”. This was his way of reminding us that Summorum Pontificum remains the law of the Church under Francis. The “great cardinals” included Raymond Burke, whom Benedict knew was soon to be sacked by Francis; I detect a flash of anger here.

8. Does Benedict approve of the direction in which Pope Francis is taking the Church? If you think the answer to this is “yes”, I’d be interested to hear your reasoning. Francis re-opened the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried by putting centre stage (without fully endorsing) the thinking of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is Joseph Ratzinger’s oldest theological adversary. He also appears to favour the principle of the devolution of authority to bishops’ conferences – supported by Kasper and opposed by Ratzinger. The ecclesiology of Pope Francis is strikingly divergent from that of his predecessor. I’d be astonished if Benedict does not feel that Francis is taking a very dangerous risk by encouraging liberal Catholics who want to change the rules governing reception of the Eucharist.

9. Did Benedict seek to influence the outcome of the 2015 synod on the family? See question six. He did not. He did, however, have lunch with his former protégé Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, in the last week of the synod. That’s all we know. Schönborn favoured a mildly “progressive” solution to the problem of Communion and divorcees; I doubt that he got his old professor’s backing for it.

10. Does the retired Benedict have any influence on the Catholic Church, even if he does not seek to wield it? He does, but this influence is difficult to summarise. Among the senior prelates who were once his strongest allies, the Pope Emeritus provokes mixed feelings. Some of them feel he left them in the lurch by resigning, having previously failed to promote them with the vigour with which Francis has promoted his allies. The current Holy Father is an old man in a hurry; his predecessor was not. Some of them wish Benedict would break his silence in order to preserve the integrity of the Eucharist, as they see it. Others feel this would involve breaking a solemn promise and would in any case be counterproductive. But let us step aside from immediate controversies. Pope Benedict XVI may have moved slowly but he did inspire a generation of Catholics to renew their devotional lives and, where possible, parish liturgies. He is also a hero to many priests and seminarians – and a living hero at that. There are countless bishops who would like to snuff out “Benedictine” spirituality. That is more difficult to do while His Holiness prays daily in his Vatican monastery. The other side of the coin is that the living presence of Benedict XVI sharpens the antagonism of certain traditionalists towards the current Holy Father. If Benedict is aware of this, he surely disapproves. Of one thing we can be certain: he believes that the Keys of Peter were handed to Jorge Bergoglio by the Holy Spirit, in whom the faith of the Pope Emeritus has never wavered.

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the January 15 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here