Since Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy and began his retirement in seclusion, he has said nothing publicly.
There’s a very good reason for that, and that’s why the most recent thing he’s written is so amazing.
He’s just publicly weighed in on Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Here’s the story . . .
1) Why is Benedict XVI so silent these days?
To give his successor a free hand. If a pope emeritus continued to speak out and play a substantial role as a public figure, it could cause all kinds of problems for his successor.
If the two were perceived as being in opposition to each other, it could be extremely traumatic for the Church. Hypothetically, it could even create a schism.
That’s why, when St. Celestine V resigned, his successor kept him imprisoned in a castle until he died.
By choosing to live in a monastery at the Vatican and staying out of the public eye, Benedict is deliberately staying out of Francis’s way.
He’s also setting a precedent for future popes emeritus.
2) What has Benedict said since retirement?
Very little. We know that he has been writing letters. In one letter, he took an atheist mathematician to the woodshed, and the mathematician later published the letter.
He also wrote a speech that was read at a Roman university by his aide, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.
But, in general, he has written very little that has come to public light.
And none of what he has written has dealt with controversial issues in the Church.
3) What does Benedict think of “the Kasper proposal”
Over the last year, the Church has been wracked by a revival of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in some circumstances.
Cardinals have been publicly debating each other in the press.
We don’t need to rehash the whole, sad history of that here.
As we’ve watched that situation play out, I’ve repeatedly wondered what Benedict must be thinking—and doing.
Since Pope Francis allowed public discussion of this subject to continue, and since it’s a source of controversy in the Church, you wouldn’t expect him to speak out publicly on the subject.
That would be precisely the kind of interference in his successor’s affairs that he set out to avoid by going into seclusion.
But this issue is so important, with such high stakes, that it’s also precisely the kind of situation that would test that resolve.
I thought, perhaps, he would play a background role—giving advice to Pope Francis off the record at an opportune moment. We know that kind of thing happens.
But he’s now done much more than that.
He’s told us what he thinks.
And it happened through an unusual chain of events that seems providentially structured.
4) What happened?
Back in 1972, when he was still a theology professor, Joseph Ratzinger wrote an essay on the indissolubility of marriage in which he tentatively floated a variation of the Kasper proposal.
This was one of several ideas that Prof. Ratzinger tried out in the days of theological experimentation after the Council but later abandoned.
Indeed, he became a leader in the opposition to the idea that Holy Communion could be given to the divorced and civilly remarried.
Thus, when Cardinal Kasper and two other German bishops floated the proposal in 1993, Cardinal Ratzinger—as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—wrote a paper forcefully rejecting the idea.
You can read it here.
But that 1972 essay was still out there, and when he revived his proposal last year, Cardinal Kasper started quoting it.
I can only imagine that this deeply displeased Benedict.
Nobody likes having his words thrown back in his face—particularly when they are words that one has disowned.
For Cardinal Kasper to publicly cite the 1972 essay in an effort to associate Benedict’s name with and thus promote a position that Benedict has rejected must really come across as twisting the knife.
And yet it would seem that Benedict’s hands were tied by his seclusion.
Only they weren’t.
5) Why not?
Because, for the last few years, there has been an effort underway to re-publish collected editions of all of Benedict’s theological writings. (His private ones, that is; not his magisterial documents.)
This effort has been led by Cardinal Gerhard Muller.
And now they’ve published—in German—a volume of Benedict’s writings that includes a revised version of the 1972 essay.