VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Eight years ago, Pope Benedict XVI shocked Catholics and the world by announcing his resignation — the first pontiff to step down in 600 years. Ever since, the spectacle of having two living popes, one “emeritus,” has led to constant rumors about his relationship with his successor, Pope Francis.
In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera published on Monday (March 1), the Emeritus Pope once again debunked “conspiracy theories” about his resignation and underlined the unity of the pontificate. He also addressed the recent election in the United States of the first Catholic president in almost half a century.
President Joe Biden “is an observing Catholic and he is personally against abortion,” Benedict said, referring to a point of contention that has arisen among the American bishops since Biden’s election.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal José Gomez of Los Angeles, released a statement after Biden’s inauguration urging the president to rethink his position in light of his Catholic faith.
“But as president he tends to present himself in continuity with the Democratic Party line,” Benedict added, “and we still don’t fully understand his policy on gender.”
In the interview, which took place in the Vatican’s monastery of Mater Ecclesiae, where he lives, Benedict smacked down “fanatics” who failed to accept the legitimacy of Francis and believe that there are two pontiffs who are opposed on church policy.
“There aren’t two popes,” Benedict told Italian reporters, “the pope is only one.”
“Some of my fanatic friends are still a bit angry, they didn’t want to accept my decision,” he said, mentioning the conspiracy theories fueled by his abdication, some of which implausibly connect recent Vatican financial scandals as a motive for his move. Others point to the power of a supposed Vatican gay lobby.
He also dismissed those who believe that Benedict’s abdication was a result of his decision to lift the excommunication of conservative Bishop Richard Williamson, who in several comments denied the existence of the Holocaust.
These fanatics, Benedict continued, “don’t want to believe that it was a consciously made decision” to resign as pontiff. “My conscience is at peace,” the emeritus pope added.
In the interview, which lasted 45 minutes, Benedict also called Francis’ upcoming apostolic visit to Iraq “a very important trip.”
“Unfortunately, it takes place in a very difficult moment, which also makes it a dangerous visit for safety reasons and (because of) COVID-19. Also, the Iraqi situation is unstable,” he added, before concluding that he will “accompany Francis with my prayer.”
Benedict has already been vaccinated against COVID-19, as has his successor, sending a clear message to anti-vaxxers in the Catholic pews.
Isolated in the monastery located in a verdant alcove of Vatican City, Benedict is accompanied only by four consecrated women from the Communion and Liberation movement and his trusted secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein.
On Sunday (Feb. 28), Ganswein told the Italian broadcast Tgcom24 that Benedict “is well for his age, very fragile physically, but his head and spirit are very lively.”
Benedict “often prays for those people who lost someone due to COVID or people who are suffering right now due to COVID-19,” the prefect of the pontifical house added.
On his decision to step down as pontiff, Ganswein said that the emeritus pope “is still very sure of his decision made in conscience eight years ago” and shut down concerns that other popes might follow in his footsteps.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to prophesy on Pope Francis or the popes to come,” he said. “I think that if the decision to resign is made realistically and for important reasons, it becomes something natural and very legitimate.”