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Benedict XVI’s Death Ends Rare Era: Pope Francis Now In-Charge

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shared the stage for one final time. The Argentine pope bowed his head and placed his hand on his German predecessor’s casket before it was carried away. With the traditionalist pope dead, the reformist pope has a free hand.
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Rome, Italy 05.01.2023: Pope Francis greets the coffin. Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican celebrates the mass for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger © Marco Iacobucci Epp /

January 13, 2023 04:46 EDT

“Blessed, faithful friend of the bridegroom, may your joy be perfect in hearing his voice definitively and forever,” thus Pope Francis concluded his homily for his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose passing on the last day of 2022 brought to a close the historic European-Italian control of the Holy Roman Church. Polish Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian, European pope since the 16th century, followed by German Cardinal Ratzinger  who assumed charge as Pope Benedict XVI. 

Pope Francis, who was Cardinal Bergolio before he assumed charge as pope, is the first Latin American pope in the history of Christianity and the first non-European pope in over 1,300 years since 741 AD. It is also the first time in the history of the Holy See that a reigning Pope has officiated the funeral of his predecessor. Notably, it has been over 600 years since there have been two popes at the same time.

The two men shared the stage for one final time at Benedict XVI’s funeral, with Pope Francis being escorted on a wheelchair 15 feet from Benedict XVI’s coffin. Their last image included a final, indelible gesture: Pope Francis bowing his head and placing his hand on the casket of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before it was carried away, which concluded the uneasy coexistence of the two for over a decade.

A battle for the future of the Catholic Church

Amid repeated crises, leaks, and scandals at the Vatican, Benedict XVI decided to relinquish the position of the Roman pontiff in February 2013. However, he curiously chose to retain the title of “Pope-Emeritus.” This move was criticized by traditionalists. A leading light of canon law and former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Jesuit Gianfranco Ghirlanda refuted the legitimacy of the figure of “pope emeritus” in a long and thoroughly substantiated article. Published on  March 2, 2013  in La Civiltà Cattolica, this piece was printed after review and authorization by the Vatican secretariat of state as are all articles in this publication.

Benedict XVI’s passing now closes this phase of “two popes.” However, the funeral has led to fresh attacks on the papacy of Pope Francis and demarcated clear fault lines within the Roman Catholic Church. Traditionalists, who unitedly saw Pope Benedict XVI as their flag bearer, are arrayed against reformists who support Pope Francis. This divide also opens questions about the future of the Vatican and the Catholic faith, which is fragmented in Europe, much like politics in the continent. 

The first salvo was fired even before Benedict XVI’s funeral by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, head of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household and possibly Pope Benedict XVI’s closest aide. The traditionalists have a list of complaints against Pope Francis, from ignoring Benedict XVI’s advice on “gender propaganda” to putting a stop to the traditional Latin mass inside the Vatican. 

In 2019, Pope Emeritus wrote a 6,000-word letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributed the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching. The letter lamented the secularization of the West. It pointed to the 1960s sexual revolution as a toxic development following which seminaries filled up with “homosexual cliques.” This contradicted Pope Francis’s official position, which blamed the power and corruption of the clergy for sexual abuse.

The conflict is not just theological but also cultural. Often it seems that Pope Francis, who continues to behave at times like a simple priest, strongly opposes the traditionalist elitist behavior of the Pontifex Maximus. For instance, he disagrees strongly with the powerful president of the US Conference of Bishops, Monsignor Timothy Broglio, who stands accused of behaving as a “Yankee” in 2016. Apparently, Broglio promoted US political interests in the church and condoned the behavior of the US army in Iraq. Pope Francis has a very different point of view.

Traditionalists v. Reformists

Broglio, like Gänswein, is a traditionalist. He served as the secretary of the legendary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the second most powerful man in the Vatican during John Paul II’s papacy. The US bishops that Broglio represents are uneasy about Pope Francis’s treatment of the second Catholic to enter the White House: US President Joe Biden. The president supports abortion and considers himself a practicing Catholic. Yet Biden was asked to stay away from Benedict XVI’s funeral by the Vatican. However, Biden enjoys a warm relationship with Pope Francis despite his political positions on abortion and gender, which oppose the traditionalist dogma of the church. 

The US bishops would like Pope Francis to exert his influence on the US President but the pope refuses to do so. Though few in number, US cardinals contribute significantly to the coffers of the Vatican. This venerable institution is now facing a major financial crisis in addition to a political one.

Traditionalists are already discussing the next conclave, which will be conducted after Francis’s death or resignation. By the end of 2022, Pope Francis had appointed 113 cardinals. Of these, 83 qualify to elect the next pope. Note that there are a total of 132 cardinals who get to elect the pope.. 

Now with a free hand at reform with the death of Benedict XVI, it is expected that Pope Francis will pack the College of Cardinals with reformists. They will further his agenda of promoting nuns and women to senior positions, allowing married men into the priesthood in areas that lack priests and opening senior Vatican positions, so far open only to clergy, to lay Catholics. Traditionalists believe this would be a disaster for the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has also been actively involved in climate change discussions and improving relations with Islam. He has preferred to visit countries where Catholics are a minuscule minority instead of those where the Catholic Church is popular and growing. Traditionalists find this counterproductive at a time when churches are empty and the Vatican’s finances are dwindling. They would rather have Pope Francis visit countries in Asia and Latin America where Catholics remain devout and their numbers are increasing.

Power, influence, and transparency

As head of state, the Pope also has the world’s most efficient and sophisticated intelligence service at his disposal. While the Vatican has never had a formal intelligence service, it is common knowledge that Pope John Paul II played a key role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apparently, the Polish pope used the Vatican’s network and collaborated with the CIA to undermine godless communism. With its global foothold, from the deepest forests of Africa to the favelas of Latin America, from remote tribal areas in India to the dark jungles of Indonesia, the Vatican has access to hundreds of millions of the faithful as well as priests on the ground living in communities. It has developed strong relationships with intelligence services worldwide due to its access and sources. The Vatican’s information sources are trusted, loyal, and local.

Pope Francis’s church has striven for economic and political transparency. It has thus weakened the church’s power with intelligence agencies. Under the Argentine pope, the Vatican has focused more on its pastoral role rather than its Cold War role of the protector of the faithful. 

Pope Francis prefers to use a network of close, trustworthy associates than rely on orders like the Opus Dei. Cardinals and the heads of the orders have always lobbied to have the papal ear and one of the most important currencies is information. This defines the influence they exert in the Holy See.During the papacy of John Paul II and even Benedict XVI, Opus Dei was extremely powerful. Now, the Society of Jesus (“Jesuits”) — the order from which Pope Francis comes from — is far more powerful. 

Traditionalists also vocally oppose a secretive Vatican-China agreement signed in 2018. The Holy See has not had relations with China since 1951 and recognizes the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People’s Republic of China. However, under Pope Francis, the Vatican signed a two-year agreement with the People’s Republic of China in 2018. It was renewed in October 2020 despite US opposition. Last year, this agreement was further renewed for another two years despite the fact that the Vatican had accused China of violating it in November 2022.

Although this agreement does not recognize communist China, it is seen as a betrayal by Roman Catholics of the underground Catholic churches in Hong Kong and Mainland China> Many see it as capitulation to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, the CCP tries to control Roman Catholicism by appointing bishops and controlling religious activity. In October 2018, CCP officials destroyed Marian shrines in China, just asas they have recently demolished Buddhist shrines dedicated to Padmasambhava in China-occupied Tibet.

China is just one political nightmare that the pope, as the head of state, must deal with. Minority Catholics and Christians who feel abandoned by the church in the Middle East, including Palestine, is another nightmare. The spread of Islam in Africa and Southeast Asia at the cost of Christianity is causing the Vatican concern. In Pope Francis’s Latin America, the spread of evangelical churches at the cost of the Roman Catholic church is a powerful phenomenon. In India, the government is finally challenging the centuries-old policy of proselytization. Like Jesus, Pope Francis is truly wearing a crown of thorns.

Critics wonder if the 86-year-old Pope Francis, who suffers from a litany of ailments, is up to the challenge of rejuvenating and reforming a nearly 2000-year-old institution rather set in its ways. After Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s passing, the ailing Argentine pope ruled out his resignation. 

On January 1, a new papacy of Francis I began without the intrigues of a conclave. His statements reveal that the world is unlikely to see two popes again. With the conservative Benedict XVI gone, Pope Francis will now try to turn the Vatican inside out.

[Conner Tighe edited this article.]

(In an era of a global pandemic, social media wars and explosively evolving geopolitics, the human spirit and its expression have suffered the most. With apologies to Edward Morgan Forster, “Rome, with a View” is a view of humanity from an interesting perspective. The author, a third culture kid, gathers from his various perches in the eternal city of Rome — Caput Mundi,  the capital of the ancient world — the whispers of wisdom through the ages imperfectly and perhaps even unwisely.)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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