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Editorial: Two’s a crowd

  • January 23, 2020

The Hollywood production The Two Popes has been earning Oscar nominations and praise as a must-see movie. But the film, which imagines conversations in 2012 between an aging Pope Benedict XVI and the soon-to-be Pope Francis, is a two-hour escape into fiction, totally unlike the drama now unfolding which stars the past and current pope.

The plot of this real-life episode centres on a book that credits Pope Benedict and a prominent cardinal as co-authors of a text that emphatically upholds priestly celibacy. That all seems perfectly normal, except that the book comes just as Pope Francis is expected to reflect on that topic in a follow-up document to last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. 

Many South American bishops, who dominated that Vatican gathering, want Francis to make an exception and allow the priestly ordination of married men to serve in remote regions where there are few priests. The issue is contentious and, no matter what he decides, Pope Francis will dishearten one side or the other.

As they say, timing is everything. Benedict’s intrusion into this debate, coming so close to any pronouncement Francis might make, was interpreted widely as interference. Even when Benedict’s secretary argued that the retired pope was a mere contributor, not a co-author with Cardinal Robert Sarah, and wanted his name removed from the book’s cover, the controversy continued to boil. And with good reason.

When he stepped down in 2013, Benedict made it clear that, although he would take the title of Pope Emeritus and continue to live in the Vatican, he would be silent on papal matters. The mere notion of a retired pope was by itself disconcerting to many, but the possibility that a retired pope might second-guess or use his public personae, deliberately or not, to sow confusion or try to influence a sitting Pope was rightly regarded as untenable. 

This novel arrangement of a retired pope living in the Vatican could only work if Benedict, now 92, stayed in the background, not silenced like a hermit but certainly mute on matters pertaining to Church reforms or papal decisions. 

His interjection into the celibacy debate may have been unwitting. That’s what his secretary claims. But regardless of the circumstances — and regardless of what side of the exceptions-to-celibacy debate people support — Benedict’s insertion into this delicate discussion just as Pope Francis is finalizing a document on the matter was ill-timed and ill-advised.

The issue is not about what Benedict said but how and when he said it. Based on his past statements, Francis and Benedict broadly agree on priestly celibacy. But that’s not the point.

Whether he intended it or not, Benedict moved from a supporting role to a lead actor in the Vatican. He doesn’t belong there anymore.

The chair of St. Peter is not a two-seater. There can only be one Pope.

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