in popes, the 2019 Netflix drama, Pope Benedict (born Joseph Ratzinger) and Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio) end up watching football together on the couch. As the credits roll, the Popes finally watch Ratzinger’s Germany win the 2014 World Cup final against Bergoglio’s Argentina.
But the reality was, as always, less romantic than Hollywood would have us believe, and the differences between Benedict and Pope Francis on Thursday extended far beyond their favorite national team. Whether they like it or not, both men have become symbols of one camp in a battle within the Catholic Church.
Take the United States for example, says Vatican expert Piero Schiavazzi, where the divide between conservative and progressive bishops is widening. For example, conservatives believe that Catholic President Joe Biden should not receive Communion because he is pro-choice. But during a visit to Rome in 2021, Pope Francis found that was no reason to deny the president communion — much to the wrath of conservative American Catholics.
Even a small group of radicals has maintained for years that the Pope is still the “real” Pope, that his resignation was not valid and that the Argentine is an “anti-pope” and a communist. This may be a fringe point of view, but forces in the Church who do not like the progressive line – relatively speaking – and the style of reaching out to Francis are not.
“In the media, Ratzinger’s pontificate only began on the day of his resignation,” says Schiavazzi. “Since then, Benedict and Francis have formed the fluid of contrast to each other, making the differences in the Church evident.”
According to the assistant professor of geopolitics at the Vatican, these differences are not slight. He points to Ratzinger’s speech in Regensburg in 2006, which was particularly notorious for its attack on Islam, but, according to the Vatican, contained another important message: ‘Ratzinger explicitly linked the future of Catholicism to Europe. On the other hand, Bergoglio looks at other parts of the world.
In recent years, for example, the pope has appointed many new cardinals from Asia and Africa and reduced the proportion of European cardinals. This is important for the future of the Church, because cardinals under the age of 80 – many of whom are newcomers – will be eligible to vote in the next conclave.
Signed resignation letter
When it comes, no one knows. However, Bergoglio has hinted several times that he intends to follow Ratzinger’s example and resign rather than die in armor. Vatican Schiavazzi agrees that people are much older than they used to be, and it seems only a matter of time before the precedent set by Ratzinger becomes the norm.
The signed letter of resignation had been ready since he took office and, as Francis recently announced in an interview, was to be submitted while he was seriously ill. The Pope has also announced that he will approach matters differently from his predecessor after a possible retirement: he does not intend to continue living in the Vatican (but in Rome), and will not regard himself as “Pope Emeritus” but rather as “Bishop Emeritus of Rome”. I want to mention no longer wearing white papal clothes.
But where two living popes have caused all the necessary inconvenience, three popes will complicate the struggle for power in the Church. This is why Francis abdicating while Benedict was alive was never a realistic option. The opportunity now arose due to the death of his predecessor.
So the decision shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: The 86-year-old church leader is older than Ratzinger when he stepped down, and has had various ailments in recent years, including bowel surgery. Knee problems left him barely able to walk, so Francis led Ratzinger’s funeral largely from a chair and was brought in in a wheelchair.
In the Italian media, the papal successor’s ring name has been running at full speed since Benedict’s death. However, Schiazzi does not expect the pope to resign before the end of next year. “He still has a diary full of plans.”
For example, in December Francis announced that he would appoint a woman for the first time to head an administrative department in the Vatican in two years. This is possible with positions for laymen, and by then it will become a position for which the leader of the church has a female successor in mind. He had previously appointed women to demoted positions, but never before had women appointed him.
The Argentine also stated explicitly that he would not consider stopping now, as long as his health does not deteriorate. At the end of this month he will travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, in August he is scheduled to visit the World Youth Days in Portugal. And his broken knee? In any case, it will not be a problem, because: “You rule with your head, not with your legs.”
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