In a speech reflecting on Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, Archbishop Georg Gänswein has confirmed the existence of a group who fought against Benedict’s election in 2005, but stressed that “Vati-leaks” or other issues had “little or nothing” to do with his resignation in 2013.
Speaking at the presentation of a new book on Benedict’s pontificate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on 20 May, Archbishop Gänswein also said that Pope Francis and Benedict are not two popes “in competition” with one another, but represent one “expanded” Petrine Office with “an active member” and a “contemplative”.
Archbishop Gänswein, who doubles as the personal secretary of the Pope Emeritus and prefect of the Pontifical Household, said Benedict did not abandon the papacy like Pope Celestine V in the 13th century but rather sought to continue his Petrine Office in a more appropriate way given his frailty.
“Therefore, from 11 February, 2013, the papal ministry is not the same as before,” he said. “It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and yet it is a foundation that Benedict XVI has profoundly and lastingly transformed by his exceptional pontificate.”
Reflecting on Benedict’s time as pope, Archbishop Gänswein said that although he was “a classic homo historicus, a Western man par excellence who embodied the richness of the Catholic tradition like no other”, at the same time he was “so bold as to open the door to a new phase, for that historic turning point that five years ago no one could have imagined”.
Gänswein drew attention to “brilliant and illuminating” and “well documented and thorough” passages of the book, written by Roberto Regoli and entitled Oltre la crisi della Chiesa. Il pontificato di Benedetto XVI (Beyond the Crisis of the Church, The Pontificate of Benedict XVI).
The German prelate especially highlighted Regoli’s account of “a dramatic struggle” that took place in the 2005 conclave between the “so-called ‘Salt of the Earth Party’” (named after the book interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) comprising “Cardinals Lopez Trujillo, Ruini, Herranz, Ruoco Varela or Medina” and their adversaries: “the so-called St Gallen group” that included “Cardinals Danneels, Martini, Silvestrini or Murphy O’Connor” – a group Cardinal Danneels referred jokingly to as “a kind of mafia-club”, Archbishop Gänswein recalled.
(His reference to that struggle backs up an interview German journalist Paul Badde gave US weekly newspaper the National Catholic Register last November and EWTN Germany, during which Badde also mentioned German Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann as being part of the St Gallen group).
“The election was certainly the outcome of a battle,” Gänswein went on, adding that the “key” to the conclave was Cardinal Ratzinger’s “dictatorship of relativism” homily that he gave on the first day of the election when he was Dean of the College of Cardinals.
Benedict’s personal secretary then referred to how Regoli highlights the “fascinating and moving” years of Benedict’s pontificate, and his “skill and confidence” in exercising the Petrine ministry.
He recalled, in particular, the “black year” of 2010, when Manuela Camagni, one of the four Memores Domini consecrated women who assisted Benedict, was tragically killed in a road accident in Rome.
The year, which he attests was a dark one, was further blackened by “malicious attacks against the pope” and the fallout from Benedict’s lifting of the excommunication on Bishop Richard Williamson who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
But nothing affected Benedict’s “heart as much as the death of Manuela”, whom he considered part of the “papal family” of helpers. “Benedict wasn’t an ‘actor pope’, and even less an insensitive ‘automaton pope’,” Gänswein said. “Even on the throne of Peter, he was and remained a man… ‘a man with his contradictions’.”
Then, after having been so affected by the death of Camagni, Benedict suffered the “betrayal of Paolo Gabriele”, his “poor and misguided” former valet who was found guilty of leaking confidential papal documents in what became known as the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal.
That episode was “false money” traded on the world stage as “authentic gold bullion” he said, but stressed that “no traitor, ‘mole’ or any journalist” would have caused Benedict to resign. “The scandal was too small” for the “greater, well considered step Benedict made of millennial historical significance.”
Such assumptions that they did have something to do with it, he said, “have little or nothing to do with reality”, adding that Benedict resigned because it was “fitting” and “reasonable”, and quoted John Duns Scotus’ words to justify the decree for the Immaculate Conception: “Decuit, potuit, fecit” – “He could do it, it was fitting that He do it.”
Various reports have suggested that pressure was exerted on Benedict to step down. One of the latest came last year from a former confidant and confessor to the late Cardinal Carlo Martini who said Martini had told Benedict: “Try to reform the Curia, and, if not, you leave.”
But in his speech, Gänswein insisted “it was fitting” for Benedict to resign because he “was aware that the necessary strength for such a very heavy office was lessening. He could do it [resign], because he had long thought through, from a theological point of view, the possibility of a pope emeritus in the future. So he did it.”
Drawing on the Latin words “munus petrinum” – “Petrine ministry” – Gänswein pointed out the word “munus” has many meanings such as “service, duty, guide or gift”. He said that “before and after his resignation” Benedict has viewed his task as “participation in such a Petrine ministry”.
“He left the Papal Throne and yet, with the step he took on 11 February, 2013, he has not abandoned this ministry,” Gänswein explained, something “quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005“.
Instead, he said, “he has built a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a communal ministry, as if he had wanted to reiterate once again the invitation contained in the motto that the then-Joseph Ratzinger had as Archbishop of Munich and Freising and naturally maintained as Bishop of Rome: cooperatores veritatis, which means ‘co-workers of the truth’.”
Archbishop Gänswein pointed out that the motto is not in the singular but in the plural, and taken from the Third Letter of John, in which it is written in verse 8: “We must welcome these people to become co-workers for the truth.”
He therefore stressed that since Francis’ election, there are not “two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry – with an active member and a contemplative member”. He added that this is why Benedict XVI “has not given up his name” – unlike Pope Celestine V, who reverted to his name Pietro da Marrone – “nor the white cassock”.
“Therefore he has also not retired to a monastery in isolation but stays within the Vatican – as if he had taken only one step to the side to make room for his successor and a new stage in the history of the papacy.”
With that step, he said, he has enriched the papacy with “his prayer and his compassion placed in the Vatican Gardens”.
Archbishop Gänswein repeated that Benedict’s resignation was “quite different” to that of Pope Celestine V.
“So it is not surprising,” he said, “that some have seen it as revolutionary, or otherwise as entirely consistent with the gospel, while still others see in this way a secularised papacy as never before, and thus more collegial and functional, or even simply more humane and less sacred.
And still others are of the opinion that Benedict XVI, with this step, has almost – speaking in theological and historical-critical terms – demythologised the papacy.”
This article first appeared in the National Catholic Register