(Left) Pope Benedict photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, (right) Pope Francis photo by Andrea Sabbadini.

When the new pope meets the old pope: Awkward?

(RNS) Now that the cardinals have elected and installed their new boss, Pope Francis can get to work being the Roman Catholic pontiff, with his next order of business doing something no other pope has done in centuries: meet the guy he replaced.

(Left) Pope Benedict photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, (right) Pope Francis photo by Andrea Sabbadini.

(Left) Pope Benedict photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, (right) Pope Francis photo by Andrea Sabbadini.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That will happen on Saturday (March 23), when Francis is scheduled to travel a few miles outside Rome to the hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence where Benedict XVI has been staying -- out of sight -- since he resigned and left the Vatican on Feb. 28.

Benedict’s resignation -- the first by a pope in 600 years -- paved the way for the conclave that elected Francis on March 13, but it also created an almost unprecedented potential for confusion and division in a church hierarchy that has room for only one pope at a time.

“Benedict XVI could turn into a shadow pope who has stepped down but can still exert indirect influence,” said Hans Kung, the dissident Swiss theologian and friend (as well as frequent critic) of Benedict's since he and the former Joseph Ratzinger were up-and-coming theologians.

Kung noted that Benedict will live in a renovated monastery inside the Vatican walls and he is keeping his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who will also remain as head of the papal household under Francis -- in effect working for the new boss while going home to live with the old one.

“No priest likes to have his predecessor looking over his shoulder,” Kung told the German magazine Der Spiegel. “Even the bishop of Rome doesn't find it pleasant to have his predecessor constantly keeping an eye on him.”

Further complicating an already novel situation is that Benedict, before he left office, decided that he would continue to wear white and he would take the title of “emeritus pope,” a position that never existed. He said he would continue to be called Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to his birth name, and he would be addressed as “Your Holiness,” a term previously reserved only for the reigning pope.

“I just cannot imagine anything so potentially divisive,” Michael Knowles wrote in a pointed essay in The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic periodical. “That is not resignation: that smacks of hanging on.” It will look, he added, “like we have two popes both living within the walls of the Vatican. The whole situation is simply intolerable."

Even one of the church’s leading canon lawyers in Rome, the Jesuit priest Gianfranco Ghirlanda, wrote in a prestigious, Vatican-approved journal that Benedict should not be called an “ex-pope” and that “the pope who has resigned is no longer pope.”

Benedict did say he would not wear the ermine-trimmed mozzetta, or short cape, that is a symbol of papal authority, nor would he wear the distinctive red shoes that attest to his willingness to shed his blood for the church. And he said he would remain “hidden from the world” inside the Vatican.

But Francis also has so far declined to don the mozzetta as part of his effort to tone down displays of papal power, and he has continued to wear the battered black shoes he brought with him to Rome from Argentina, which may add to a weird visual similarity during Saturday's courtesy call.

In terms of church law, at least, there is no conflict or confusion on this issue: Francis is the pope, with all the authority that conveys. Benedict has no power to do anything.

In reality, however, much more is in play.

A pope’s effectiveness rests on gaining a hearing and the assent of the flock; in a church that is already deeply divided, those who disagree with Francis may impute an influence to Benedict that could appear to compromise the current pope’s authority, which is supposed to be absolute.

Some argue that the aura of the papacy has already been undermined by Benedict’s stunning resignation; it was always assumed that a pope was pope until he died.

There are, to be sure, practical reasons for Benedict to live in the Vatican rather than returning to his former Bavarian home in Regenbsurg, for example. One is security: The Vatican does not have the resources to provide round-the-clock protection in another country for an ex-pope, who is in effect a former head of state. Nor would a host country want to take on that cost and responsibility.

Similarly, by remaining in the Vatican, a sovereign nation, Benedict retains immunity from efforts to prosecute him in clergy sex abuse cases. Such charges are unlikely to go anywhere, but fighting them could prove embarrassing both for the church but also for any other country that was hosting Benedict.

Then there’s the view that if it’s good to keep your friends close, it’s good to keep your ex-popes closer.

“At first I thought it's not good for him to be in Rome,” retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the National Catholic Reporter.

“Now I think it's for the best, because it prevents anyone who doesn't like the new man from saying, ‘I'll go up to Regensburg and talk to (Benedict).’ Now you can't do that. You can't get to him unless he wants to be gotten to,” McCarrick said.


  1. Having two Popes is indeed very intriguing. Benedict still hanging around the Vatican while a new cat is in power doesn’t make sense. There must be a little more to this intricate play of power they feel they have in the world. Is it not a religion? Does it have any sort of influence in secular life? Does the government act within or without demands or influences the church may want to offer.

  2. There is no problem with having Benedict “around” and David Gibson as well as the other hack, pseudo catholic “writers know it!! Hans Kung is no source to pay attention to. Af ter all, the man is a heretic who has somehoe hung on as a “priest in good standing” but who would have been excommuinicated on his ear by a great pope like St. Pius X. Kung questions so many core Catholic doctrines that he really isn’t catholic at all. Gibson’s job is to sell controversy. There will be no discord between Pope Francis and the former pope Benedict. Bendict is a peaceful man and Francis is too but he is also a decisive leader and spokeman. Stop giving credence to these controversy mongerers like hack writer David Gibson…Is he really Catholic???

  3. i agree with jack. reading the article alerted to me that everything said was not straight. then i goggled the author david gibson. i think he is writing to sensationalize not imform.

  4. Oh, no! Here we go again, more pope bashing by Hans Kung and others. Both Benedict and Francis are humble men who want to serve the Church. Benedict understands who is in charge and Francis understands that in some matters he will benefit from consulting Benedict. Neither of these men have a fraction of the ego that Hans Kung has. Kung imagines that there will be tremendous problems because if he were in the position of one of these two men, there would, in fact, be problems. Also, I might add that Benedict made a humble and courageous sacrifice for the good of the Church, not out of laziness. It is believed that he felt that another would be more energetic and in a better position to make a few needed reforms. Francis now has the perfect opportunity to make replacements in the curia that would have been more difficult to make by Benedict. Francis is very intelligent and has managed his previous offices well. An intelligent and humble man will make use of his resources including Benedict. He has also been shown to act quite independently but within the proper biblical and doctrinal contexts and I imagine that Benedict will be supportive. The Holy Spirit chose Benedict for his mission as pope and now Francis has his.

  5. You guys are desperate to stir up some controversy. Pathetic, Hans Kung, doubly pathetic!

  6. Just so, Jack! Why ANYONE would regard Hans Kung as a referent to the Catholic Church is beyond me! And as for Gibson…this is no more intolerable (and it DOES have a prededent) than a bishop or archbishop emeritus living out their lives in the diocese from which they are retired. They are still regarded as what they are, bishops; they still dress as bishops, they are still addressed as “Your Excellency” or “Your Grace.” It’s no big deal. Rachet down the shrill drama.

  7. I continue to be amazed at the ridiculous things people come up with. Anyone who has spent time with those who are elderly and frail know that power struggles are the furthest things from their minds. Benedict will pray and draw down the heavenly strength this new pope needs to handle the scoundrels within and without the church. Benedict is a very brave man; I hope he lives for many more years.

  8. Why is it that the media people always have to make some controversy out of every subject, including the Pope. The Pope Emeritus said specifically, that he had no intention of interfering in the new Pope’s ministry or life. They knew each other for many years and are friends visiting with each other. If Benedict, as a friend, has anything to share, privately, with Pope Francis that might be beneficial to his position, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Kung has always been a dissident and needs to put a “zipper” on his mouth and mind his own business.

  9. This is such a non-issue. Many, many dioceses worldwide have a bishop and bishop emeritus and, maybe with the current exception in LA, it works fine. Washington has Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Baum. They all are referred to as His Eminence or Cardinal, they all live in Washington and they all wear cardinal red, but everyone knows who is the archbishop and who are the archbishops emeritus. Can’t imagine why it would be different just because the guys wear white.

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