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Pope Benedict’s most important legacy is Francis

It may seem counterintuitive, but the defining legacy of Pope Benedict XVI is that he gave the Church Pope Francis.

Pope Francis greets Benedict XVI, September, 2014. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo.

Following the death of Pope Benedict XVI, the tributes and testimonies to his life have flowed, offering different accounts of an extraordinary life of study and service to the Church.

Joseph Ratzinger, ordained a priest in 1951 and a bishop in 1977, was a prolific theologian and author. A major force in the post conciliar decades, his academic and theological writings seem likely to form part of the canon of essential study for future generations of professors, priests and bishops.

As a bishop, priest, and cardinal, Ratzinger was also, contrary to many media caricatures, well known as a kindly and personal figure, often sending thoughtful, handwritten letters in response to mail he received from Catholics around the world.

The legacy of Joseph Ratzinger the theologian and the man seems obvious.

But the most significant and defining legacy of Pope Benedict XVI as governor of the universal Church seems equally obvious, though it may seem counterintuitive to say so: It was Pope Benedict who gave the Church Pope Francis.

To say that Francis is Benedict’s most enduring legacy isn’t to suggest that Benedict achieved little in office — on the contrary.

His 2009 constitution Anglicanorum coetibus created a space for former Anglicans, laity and clergy, to reconcile with Rome, and the personal ordinariates it erected have become a unique part of the Catholic patrimony and family.

And it was Benedict who redefined clerical sexual abuse as a crime against the faith as well as against the person of the victims, reshaping the Church’s legal and pastoral responses to the abuse crises which still continue to emerge.

But from the moment Benedict read out his statement of resignation to the consistory of cardinals nearly a decade ago, many Church watchers predicted that his decision to renounce his office would be the defining act of his reign.

In many ways, this is both true and self-explanatory. As the first pope to resign in centuries, Benedict’s decision did “make history.” But how that decision would shape the future was not clear. Today, it seems impossible to separate the significance of Benedict’s resignation from what followed.

At the time Benedict stepped down, some canonists wondered what a “pope emeritus” was, legally speaking, and questioned the title and dress he would use in his semi-secluded retirement, and how he would relate to his eventual successor. Others wondered if his age (then 85) and stated reasons (failing strength) for resigning would create a kind of pressure on future popes to follow his example.

Those questions have largely been answered, not so much by Benedict himself as by the man elected to succeed him: Pope Francis.

The relationship between Francis and Benedict, both as men and as popes, has been the subject of continual Church gossip, media speculation, and even pop culture fiction, almost since the day the 2013 conclave ended.

The two popes are usually framed in stark contrast, if not outright tension, with the Francis era pitched as a radical change of direction, if not intentional breach with his predecessor.

And it is true that, apart from his resignation itself, many assumed Benedict’s most enduring legacy would be his 2007 motu proprio Summorum pontificum, which widened and re-established the celebration of the older form of the Roman liturgy throughout the Latin Church — which Francis abrogated in 2021.

But while it’s unlikely Benedict expected, or perhaps even privately welcomed, Francis’ issuance of Traditionis custodes, he never dissented from it. And the context and timing of Benedict’s decision to resign suggest he made the decision in full awareness of what could follow — and he chose to do it anyway.

When he stepped down from the Petrine office, Benedict said his decision was the fruit of long meditation and prayer, and those closest to him have always said that Benedict sincerely believed resigning was what the Lord had called him to do.

At the same time, Vatican gossip has long held that the ensuing conclave was expected to deliver a particular result — the election of Cardinal Angelo Scola — and that the choice of Jorge Maria Bergolio was the fruit of superior planning and electioneering by a small group of supporters.

The Kremlinology of conclave politicking has always been a point of fascination for Vatican watchers and those in the immediate orbit of curial politics. And the process of electing a pope is certainly a human process. But, in the same way that the Church is both human and divine, Catholics also trust that the Holy Spirit acts as a guide to the process, and protects the future of the Church.

Judging by the timing and manner of his resignation, Benedict appeared to trust this absolutely, and that the next pope would be the right one for the circumstances.

A pope intent on steering an orderly succession to a chosen candidate could have promoted a critical number of “reliable” cardinal electors to help deliver a result. But Benedict did not do so.

He could also have simply waited several months more before announcing his resignation, to see a sizable turnover in the college — 10 of the 117 voting age cardinals, including several widely held to be key Francis supporters —  would have turned 80 and aged out of the conclave by the end of that year.

Indeed, had he timed his resignation to take effect only a week later, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the longtime theological sparring partner of Benedict’s - and a key influence on both the first years of the Francis pontificate and the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia - would have been excluded.

Benedict chose none of those options, despite surely being aware of them.

And looking over the list of 2013 cardinal electors with hindsight, many might conclude that only that conclave could have produced Pope Francis — and only Benedict’s resignation at that exact time could have brought it about.

And if Benedict was expecting a different man to succeed him, he still might well have expected the conclave to produce a pope who would do some of the things Francis has done.

When Pope Benedict resigned, he made clear that, at 85, he believed he was no longer up to the job, physically or mentally.

There was at the time considerable speculation that Benedict had an as-yet unannounced medical condition and his time as “pope emeritus” would be short — though that speculation proved clearly unfounded.

But there was just as much discussion about Benedict resigning in the wake of mounting scandals, especially the so-called Vatileaks saga, which saw his former butler tried and jailed for delivering confidential documents to reporters.

Curial scandal loomed large in the final months of Benedict’s pontificate, with reporting and conjecture mixing to form a toxic cloud of suspicion about financial and moral corruption in the Vatican.

Two months before he announced his resignation, Benedict received a voluminous dossier on "Vatican lobbies" prepared by a special investigation committee. Some reports claim Benedict decided to resign that day, after concluding he was unequal to the task of cleaning out bad actors from the curia.

That report was never released, though its authors, Cardinals Tomko, Herranz, and Di Giorgi were apparently free to discuss their findings with the cardinal electors, and they re-presented them to Francis after he was elected.

Although assessments of Francis’ pontificate are often dominated by other issues, at the time he emerged on the loggia, it was almost universally understood that he had been elected with a mandate for curial reform as a first priority. And many of his first and most dramatic moves as pope involved shaking up financial oversight bodies and appointing outsiders to bring in new measures to combat corruption.

That reforming agenda has ebbed and flowed considerably over the last decade, so much so that one of Francis’ key appointments, former Vatican auditor general Libero Milone, is now attempting to sue the Secretariat of State for forcing him out for doing his job.

But with reams of new financial laws brought onto the Vatican statute books, and 10 people on trial for financial crimes — including a senior cardinal, Francis’ own former chief of staff — it is fair to say that Francis has acted boldly on a key issue that Benedict, by all accounts, could not.

Whatever the final reason Benedict decided to renounce the papal office, and however long he thought he would live on as “pope emeritus” to see what followed, he had always set himself to live quietly and in semi-seclusion in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.

But despite keeping a low profile and constantly affirming his own loyalty to his successor, in retirement Benedict became a constant flash point for the fringes of Church discourse.

For those Catholics disaffected with Pope Francis’ leadership, the “pope emeritus” became the locus of deranged conspiracy theories about an invalid resignation and the election of an “antipope.”

On the other side of the horseshoe of ecclesiastical discourse, Benedict became a kind of boogeyman — a silent marshal of “conservative” opposition to Francis, even as he affirmed his own deep affection for and obedience to the new pope.

Through all of that, Benedict was never reported to have said a dissenting word about his successor, indeed his rare public interventions were pointedly in support of Francis.

Yet, paradoxically, invoking Benedict as an obstacle for his successor, or even a limit on his freedom to lead the Church became, at times, a kind of rhetorical device for liberals to criticize Francis when the two men were inconveniently in agreement.

Ahead of Francis’ 2019 summit to respond to the abuse crisis triggered by the twin scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Chilean bishops’ conference, Benedict issued a lengthy letter on the different calls for changes to Church law to enhance episcopal accountability.

Prominent boosters for Francis, like writer Austen Ivereigh, hailed the pope emeritus’ "helpful contribution," and noted how "they are very different men, and very different popes. But on the fundamentals, there seems to be little distance between them."

Those same commentators reversed course the following year, after Benedict allowed his name to appear on a book defending clerical celibacy, following calls during the synod on the Amazon to erode the discipline.

Although the book essentially backed the position of Francis himself, who called celibacy "a gift to the Church," and said he "does not agree with allowing optional celibacy," Iveriegh called the publication “elder abuse” and claimed Benedict was too senile and infirm to be allowed to contribute his thoughts on the subject — even while official Vatican spokesmen welcomed the text as a helpful and loyal contribution.

Francis is, of course, now older than Benedict was when he decided to resign, showing no signs of emulating his predecessor’s example. And, give or take a bad knee and colon surgery in 2021, the pope appears to be in rude health and set to continue in office for the foreseeable future.

But however long Francis continues, his relationship with his predecessor for the first decade of his pontificate will be an important part of his own time in office.

Conspiracy theorists and partisan commentators to one side, Francis was a not infrequent visitor to the monastery at the bottom of the garden. While we may never know how much counsel the pope sought from his predecessor, or what effect it had in shaping Francis’ own thinking, that too is a part of Benedict’s legacy.

Without diminishing his own time on the chair of St. Peter, it is a simple statement of fact that Benedict spent longer in retirement than in office — it has been and looks set to remain a time of considerable reform and change in the life of the Church.

How much of the last decade Benedict would have lived through had he continued in office is open to speculation. So, too, is what he might have done differently to Francis in that time, or who else might have succeeded Benedict had he not resigned when he did.

While there is no way of knowing how things might have been different had Benedict chosen to do differently in February of 2013, it is for certain that what has followed since is a fruit of that decision. So too will be whatever comes next in the Francis era, including the fate of the Church in Germany, and the conclusion of the worldwide synodal process.

While contemporary commentators and future historians can disagree over whether all this should be assigned as credit or blame to him, that fact is, perhaps unarguably, Benedict’s most significant legacy.

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