DOMRADIO.DE: To what extent was it important for Francis’ pontificate that there was always a second, albeit retired, pope in the background?
Georg Löwisch (editor-in-chief of the “Zeit” supplement “Christ und Welt”): It was a very important feature and, above all, it was completely new. This constellation of two was just as historic as Benedict’s resignation. Francis did that too.
2013 was the change. That was almost ten years ago now. During this decade there have always been two popes, although one was the acting pope and the other the papa emeritus.
DOMRADIO.DE: Benedikt didn’t really hold back either. He always spoke up.
Löwisch: It all started with the fact that he chose to live in the monastery in the Vatican Gardens. That’s close to the action, almost in the middle of it all. He also chose to wear a white robe, as only the Pope is supposed to.
He was not a retired Pope but a Pope Emeritus. Just like the emeritus professors teach at the universities, Benedict has done the same thing from time to time. There was a lot of talk about modesty. He also actually vowed that he will hold back a lot. But he didn’t quite succeed.
DOMRADIO.DE: In your opinion, would it have been better if he had really held back more?
Löwisch: It would have been easier, at least for Francis. It’s not about just any savings bank director, it’s about the papal office. An office for which it was always constitutive that there is only one. But there was always this second one for a while.
He has also spoken out again and again, for example on the relaxation of celibacy, which Francis definitely intended for remote parishes in the Amazon region. Then suddenly there was a contribution from Benedikt and it went a bit wrong.
Afterwards, of course, it was all a misunderstanding, but then you noticed that there was always something in the room: If Benedikt or Benedikt’s environment didn’t suit, then there was the possibility that there would be a small public scandal.
Of course no incumbent pope likes that, no ruler can like that at all. And that’s how tricky this two-person constellation was. It is often said of people who are powerful, who have an office, that the loneliness of the office bothers them. It is perhaps more true of Francis that the togetherness of the office bothered him.
DOMRADIO.DE: Shortly after Benedict’s death, his closest confidante, Archbishop Gänswein, quickly emphasized how much it pained the Pope Emeritus, for example, that Francis had again strictly restricted the Old Mass. So does that mean that Benedict also observed Francis very critically in the background?
Löwisch: There were moments when this controversy between the two, which was floating unspoken in the room, broke out. Certainly one point was that Francis drastically restricted the Old Mass, which Benedict actually made great again. Benedict said nothing about it at the time. But Gänswein did that. But there are also other points, for example Gänswein himself: In the beginning he was responsible for both popes. Then Francis relieved him of this task and that was a great humiliation.
Another point: Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller had become the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict, actually one of the most important cardinals. Francis took over and, in 2017, very rudely removed him from office. Müller himself complained about it. You could say it has been dumped, so to speak, or perhaps you should say dumped.
DOMRADIO.DE: Conversely, does that also mean that Pope Francis could now feel more liberated to possibly tackle and implement reforms?
Löwisch: It would be completely exaggerated to say: What Francis didn’t achieve and didn’t manage and that he announced so much and then ultimately didn’t implement that much, everything is up to Benedict. That would be too much. But there could already be this effect that it’s easier now that you no longer have to think about Benedict.
It’s just a difference when the grandfather – or now it was a holy grandfather – is in an old people’s home and when he is dead. Then the grandfather is gone, so to speak, and he is no longer considered, he can no longer serve as a living reference point for an “enemy” camp. In this respect, I would say that the potential for Francis to be able to play a little more freely is already there. The question is whether he still uses it. It’s up to him.
DOMRADIO.DE: Does that also apply to a possible resignation? Francis has often spoken of it, but one could not really imagine two resigned popes in the garden of the Vatican. Would that be easier now?
Löwisch: I would see it that way too. A holy father and a holy grandfather is hard enough. But now to have a Holy Father, a Holy Grandfather and a Holy Great-Grandfather, the Vatican or even the Catholic Church would probably have been too small for that. That might actually make it easier.
Francis also has health problems, which could also be seen at the funeral, that most of it takes place sitting down when he celebrates the service. But that’s open now. It may be a withdrawal by installments or it may be the return of the reformer. At this moment in church history, both are possible.
DOMRADIO.DE: At the Requiem, Francis also preached about Benedict and emphasized the efforts of the papal office. What would you say that could be deduced from this sermon, in which direction his pontificate could go now?
Löwisch: I found that he referred very strongly to the reading texts. He also said very little directly about the predecessor. Appreciating Benedict’s wisdom and sensitivity, he said, “Benedict, faithful friend of the heavenly Bridegroom, may your joy be complete when you hear his voice finally and forever.” That sounded very warm to me, but it was then somehow very tight.
Of course, one can also interpret his statements on the papacy and say: Perhaps Francis wanted to say that even if the papacy is difficult, that doesn’t mean that one gives up immediately. He literally said, “Love is being willing to suffer.”
Or that there are contradictions and crossroads in the papal office. Maybe he also referred that to himself and wanted to tell us that it doesn’t mean that he’s going to quit straight away, just because it might be easier to do in terms of protocol than before, because of this two-person constellation that no longer exists.
The interview was conducted by Hannah Krewer.
The original of this article “Journalist sees new potential for Pope Francis” comes from DOMRADIO.DE.