Two popes, plotting cardinals and the fallout of an explosive book

Angela Giuffrida
Photograph: L’Osservatore Romano/EPA

The pilgrims filing into the papal audience hall last Wednesday were mostly oblivious to the saga enveloping the Vatican over an explosive new book that pits the retired Pope Benedict XVI against the reigning Pope Francis. But they were clear on who their favourite is.

Director Fernando Meirelles, and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis, during the filming of ‘The Two Popes’. Photograph: Peter Mountain/AP

“I would not have come all this way for Benedict,” said Marisol Durán Vergora, a first-time visitor to the Vatican from Spain. “He is an extremist, whereas Francis is more human and closer to the people.” Another pilgrim, who wished to remain anonymous, speculated after being briefed on the goings-on: “Benedict decided to abdicate and should keep his promise of staying silent.”

The ex-pontiff, who chose to be called Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after his abdication in 2013, instead of reverting to Joseph Ratzinger, is at the centre of a drama that has been more entertaining than the Oscar-nominated film, The Two Popes. It started with a book written with the outspoken conservative cardinal Robert Sarah defending priestly celibacy. That in itself would not have caused a stir. But the timing of the book’s release, as Pope Francis considers allowing the ordination of married men in remote areas of the Amazon in order to overcome a shortage of priests, led many to accuse Benedict, who still lives within the walls of Vatican City and continues to wear a white cassock, of breaching his vow of silence and undermining his successor’s authority.

In a bizarre twist, after extracts of From the Depths of Our Hearts were published in France’s Le Figaro newspaper last Sunday, the former pontiff demanded that his name be dropped as co-author. His personal secretary, Georg Gänswein, said that while Benedict knew that Cardinal Sarah, who has clashed with Pope Francis in the past, was preparing a book, and had sent him an essay on the priesthood, he had not approved a co-authored project and had neither seen nor authorised the book’s cover.

Sarah denied allegations that he had misled Benedict, providing proof of the text that had been given to him and claiming that Benedict was aware that the project would take the form of a book.

The French publisher, Fayard, went ahead and published the book as planned, but in future editions Benedict will be named as a contributor rather than co-author. Meanwhile, the US publisher, Ignatius, refused to relent, saying in a statement that the English version would retain Benedict as co-author.

Amid the fallout over the book, Vatican commentators picked over its origins, with some saying “the two popes” were the victims of exploitation by the warring conservative and liberal factions within the Catholic church. Throughout his life Benedict has been a prolific writer, but others questioned his capacity to construct such a detailed essay at the age of 92. A Vatican journalist for the rightwing Italian press claimed that it was a furious Pope Francis who ordered that Benedict’s name be removed.

Benedict has come forward on a variety of issues over the past seven years, most controversially writing last year that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and “homosexual cliques” among priests were to blame for the church’s paedophile-priest scandals. The opinion came two months after an unprecedented Vatican summit on tackling clerical sexual abuse, and sharply contrasted with that of Francis, who blamed the scandals on a clerical culture that elevates priests above the laity. Benedict also wrote a letter complimenting Cardinal Joachim Meisner – a fierce critic of Francis who spoke out against the pontiff allowing remarried divorcees to receive holy communion – who died in 2017.

But this is the first time he has intervened, whether knowingly or not, in a matter that the Pope is actively considering. Francis is weeks away from publishing his decision on the Amazon after a document approved by bishops at a synod in October noted that people of Catholic faith in the region have “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion and seeing a priest. If Francis supports the request to ordain married men, it would apply only to those already serving as deacons. The pontiff himself has consistently said that he would never change the centuries-old requirement for celibacy, but critics fear that the Amazon could set a precedent.

“In all the times that Benedict has intervened, what he has written is coherent with what he thinks, so this doesn’t surprise me,” said Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a Vatican journalist and author of the book Tango Vaticano. La Chiesa al Tempo di Francesco (‘Vatican Tango. The Church in the Time of Francis’). “They say he may have been manipulated by his entourage, but he was the one who chose his entourage.”

‘Gorgeous Georg’ Gänswein at the start of the Palm Sunday Mass at Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

The person at the centre of his inner circle is Gänswein, a German archbishop whose dashing looks have earned him the nickname Gorgeous Georg. “I don’t doubt that in all of this drama Gänswein had a role,” added Scaramuzzi. “He is also very conservative and is among the Pope’s opponents.”

Robert Mickens, the Rome-based editor of the English-language edition of the Catholic newspaper La Croix, said that Benedict had never dissociated himself from “the minions” who use him.

“From the beginning, supporters of the more traditional wing of the church who were not happy that he resigned have tugged at him to keep his voice in the game,” added Mickens. “And he has worryingly gone along with this. We’re in this situation because he did not keep his promise to be quiet.”

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The Two Popes is a fictionalised depiction of a bromance between Benedict and Francis despite their different ideas, with, in the final scene of the film, the pair eating pizza and drinking beer as they watch Germany play Argentina in the World Cup final. In real life, it is unlikely the two are so chummy, but most experts agree that the relationship, at least until now, has been cordial, with Francis acting graciously in the face of opposition.

“They have always tried to have good relations in order not to present a great split at the top of the church,” said Marco Politi, a Vatican journalist and author of Joseph Ratzinger, Crisis of a Papacy. “But this is the first time the retired pope has [explicitly] taken sides, and this is really serious.”

Joshua McElwee, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said Benedict’s comments on celibacy could scupper the potential move in the Amazon and leave many questions unanswered, especially over how the role of Pope Emeritus would continue.

Among those in the queue for a papal audience was Alex Flood, a protestant minister from the US who was in Rome to do research on Catholicism. “I know very little about the politics of the Catholic church but from our perspective, celibacy should be a choice and not beholden to tradition,” he said. “When I speak to Catholics they recognise this, but it’s such an old tradition that the change is uncomfortable.”

Flood described the scandal over the book as a “dog-and-pony show that is missing the needs of people”.

“It’s akin to watching American politics,” he said.