Note: Although not all views in this report represent the position of the Pan-Amazon Synod Watch website, it is helpful to compose a picture of the situation.
HANNAH ROBERTS – Politico
ROME — When Benedict XVI resigned as pope in 2013, he vowed to spend his retirement in contemplation and prayer — and not to interfere with the papacy of this successor, Pope Francis. Benedict’s papal ring, symbol of his authority, was ceremoniously smashed with a silver hammer.
But far from remaining a silent partner, Benedict has continued to share his views, becoming a touchstone for conservative forces in the church pushing back against Francis’ reform-minded papacy.
Now, just as Francis is considering whether to allow married men in remote regions to become Catholic priests, Benedict’s name has appeared as the co-author of a new book championing priestly celibacy.
Published last week, “From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church” — co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgy office — has thrown the church into turmoil. Critics accuse Benedict of undermining Francis’ authority, sparking concerns about a Vatican with two popes.
Whether to make celibacy optional is “a difficult decision,” said Vittorio Bellavite of Noi Siamo Chiesa, a progressive pressure group in favor of the measure.
Benedict, he added, “has made it more difficult. If [Francis] says no, the conservatives have won. If he says yes, he goes against an ex-pope.”
As an ex-pope, Benedict occupies an almost unique position — he is the first pope to have resigned in over 600 years — and one that raises awkward questions about papal authority.
“It is unthinkable that Benedict would lend himself to this kind of interference,” said the bishop of Siena, Paolo Lojudice.
Many popes, whether progressive or conservative, have sought to overturn changes wrought by their predecessors. But before Francis’ reign, they have always had the reassurance that their predecessors were not going to answer back — at least not in this mortal realm.
Benedict’s continued earthly presence makes it possible for a living pope — God’s appointed representative on Earth — to have his views directly contradicted by someone who has, very recently, held the same post.
It doesn’t help that the book’s cover credits the former pope by his papal name Benedict XVI. As one senior member of the Curia put it: “It is one thing to express ideas, it is another to have them put in a public place dressed in the authority of a former pope.”
Some blame was deflected when the frail 92-year-old denied authorizing the book, and insisted on being listed as a contributor instead. Although Cardinal Sarah has produced letters that he says prove Benedict agreed to the book, others have suggested the former pope was unwittingly used as a mouth-piece by those who wanted to stamp their dogmas with papal authority.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the clerical infighting reveals the Vatican as a divided city-state still riven with the scandal and power plays that tainted Benedict’s reign.
In October, a global meeting of bishops, known as the Synod for the Amazon, voted to ordain married priests in remote areas where vast distances mean some isolated villages — days from the nearest settlement — celebrate mass as seldom as once a year.
Francis has not yet given his approval, amid pushback from conservatives who fear relaxing rules on married priests, even in such unusual circumstances, is a slippery slope toward making it the norm.
Conservative commentators such as José António Ureta of Pan-Amazon Synod Watch, a climate-skeptic campaign group run by the traditionalist Catholic Plinio Correa de Oliveira Institute in Brazil, claim that the synod was cynically organized by liberals, “mainly German-speaking cardinals,” with the objective of moving toward optional celibacy in the universal church.
Indeed, some campaigners admit they are hoping for a trickle effect, which could also help address the vocation crisis in secular Europe. The synod “gave us hope,” said Bellavite. “We are convinced that if the pope accepts these proposals, there will be other situations where he will accept the same.”
According to Giuseppe Serrone of the Movement for Married Priests, there is “an army”of around 8,000 former priests who gave up holy orders to marry and would be ready to re-enter service.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Sarah called the proposals for married priests “an insult to God,” and denounced the push as part of an attempt to take advantage of poor communities to further a bourgeois ideological agenda.
While Francis has signaled that he has no intention of dropping the requirement of priestly celibacy, he is inclined “to make an exception, perhaps limited to a geographical area,” according to the Curia member.
“There are already married priests, especially those who converted from Anglicanism. He will try to find a response to the situation.”
Conservatives claim such a decision would be dangerously divisive.
“The clash is so strong that many observers believe we are heading towards a schism in the church,” said Ureta, of Pan-Amazon Synod Watch. “Francis said that all major transitions lead to divisions in the church and that he is not afraid of a schism. Well, I am afraid of a pope that is not afraid of a schism.”
With Francis due to publish his decision by early February, the book is a last-ditch opportunity for conservatives to put a spanner in the works, with Benedict writing of the “impossibility of a marital bond” for priests.
“I think it was necessary to compensate for pressures from the other side,” said Ureta.
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It is not the first time Benedict has publicly contradicted Francis. The former pope published an 18-page text on the sex abuse scandal in April 2019, in which he blamed the permissive sexually open culture of the 1960s rather than the misplaced clerical loyalties Francis holds responsible. Supporters dubbed it Benedict’s “last encyclical,” referring to one of the most important types of papal documents.
But Francis doesn’t object to robust debate, said the Curia member. “Everybody has the right to contribute to the debate, and Benedict is an expert theologian.”
The differences between the two popes is overstated, the member of the Curia added. Francis’ cheerleaders try to pressure him to take radical decisions, but the pope is not really a revolutionary. “Some people with progressive views like to make out that Francis is with them, but he is not.”
And it was Benedict who took the radical step of inviting married Anglican priests to convert to Catholicism, while allowing them to keep their families.
The dustup over Benedict’s misstep shows that the ongoing civil war between the church’s opposing cultural factions is gathering pace, with the next papal conclave already in the sights of the traditionalists.
Benedict remains a lightning rod for conservative elements of the church like Sarah, who want to block Francis’ reforms and make sure that a less progressive pope is elected next.
Indeed, Sarah is a thorn in the side of the current pope, according to some insiders. His expressed views against migration are at odds with those of Francis, a tireless defender of migrants. He has called gay relationships “sinful and harmful” while Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”
Seemingly anticipating some controversy, Cardinal Sarah wrote in a letter to Benedict: “I imagine you might think that your reflections might not be opportune, but I am convinced that the whole church needs this gift.”
“He is quite careful,” said the Curia insider. “He disagrees with the pope, but within the system, not trying to fracture or break the church. He tries to stay within the lines, the opposition not the enemy.”
But by publicly conscripting Benedict into the latest fight, Sarah may have pushed the elderly former pope too far and made him reluctant to take the lead in further attempts to frustrate Francis’ reforms.
While Sarah has been touted as a papabile, or possible successor to Francis, it remains an unlikely prospect. Given the math of the College of Cardinals, a pope from the reactionary grouping is almost impossible, according to the Curia official.
The conservatives won’t go down without a fight, but they’re rapidly losing ground. The next pope will be elected by a vote in the College of Cardinals. Within that group, Francis’ faction is growing stronger with every new appointment, while those chosen by Benedict are dying out, or reaching 80 (and therefore losing their voting privileges) at a faster rate.
These days, said the official, “most cardinals are products of the Francis approach.”
The main victim of the row is the papacy itself. But internecine warfare within its ranks is as old as the Church.
For now at least, Francis and his allies appear to be winning the war.
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