What did Benedict XVI’s leaked letters tell us?

Benedict XVI, pictured on the day he was elected pope (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, an event the magnitude of which is difficult to exaggerate, returned to the news last week with the release of two letters sent in November 2017 from the Pope Emeritus to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller. The abdication, never adequately explained, now is acknowledged as causing pain and anger in the Church, besmirching the assessment of Benedict’s pontificate.

It has never been in reasonable doubt that Benedict in fact did resign and that the See of Peter did become vacant, subsequently to be filled by Pope Francis. But whether such a grave decision, to abdicate the office of universal pastor, was itself reasonable, was certainly in doubt.

At the time, many commentators – this one included – were eager to give Benedict the benefit of any doubt. Surely for such a decision to be taken, Benedict would have persuasive reasons. At the time, though, the Holy Father only offered the serenity of his conscience that it was the correct decision due his diminishing strength. Yet diminishing strength is inevitable for all men before they die, so it seemed that diminishing strength, rather than evident incapacity, was a weak basis on which to base the renunciation of the papal office.

In 2016, Benedict explained his thinking in The Last Testament, an interview book with Peter Seewald. The explanation offered was even less satisfactory. Benedict’s incapacity for further transoceanic travel – apparently indicated by the papal physician – meant that he could not attend World Youth Day in Rio in 2013. Hence he resigned. Far from being persuasive, it seemed utterly incommensurate to the gravity of the act.

The Brandmüller letters underscore that gravity. In the fall of 2017, Cardinal Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences, publicly stated that the figure of “pope emeritus” was a complete invention, having no precedent whatsoever in the life of the Church.

“Of course, you know very well that popes have retired, even if very rarely,” Benedict wrote to Brandmüller on November 9, 2017, upbraiding his friend. “What were they afterwards? Pope Emeritus? Or what instead?”

Benedict went on to assert, rather than argue, that he could not revert to being a cardinal, as he notes that Pope Pius XII had decided to do if abducted by the Nazis. Such a situation would have involved him more in ongoing Church affairs, to the detriment of his successor.

“If you know of a better way and thus believe that you may condemn the one I have chosen, please tell me about it,” concluded Benedict.

There is a plaintive note there, Benedict asking his ally to consider that he did the best he could, attempting to reduce the gravity of his decision which, though occurring “very rarely”, had precedent. But Brandmüller has the better of the argument in pointing out that that the status of “pope emeritus” is entirely new.

Previous popes who resigned, or were deposed, did so as a result of a crisis in the legitimacy of their rule. Hence there was no “pope emeritus” serenely living alongside his successor. Abdicating absent a crisis constitutes a total novelty.

The letters – though we do not have Brandmüller’s reply dated November 15 – imply that the cardinal felt that abdication absent a crisis has brought the Church, albeit indirectly, to a crisis under Pope Francis.

In his second letter to Brandmüller, dated November 23, Benedict acknowledges the “deep-seated pain” that the abdication caused for “many” which he “can understand very well.” But Benedict, writing 10 months ago, fears that this pain “has turned into anger” against not only the “the resignation, but increasingly is expanding to my person and to my pontificate as a whole.”

Benedict is correct. For Brandmüller and others, the resignation is now major black mark against Benedict, which stains his entire pontificate.

“In this manner a pontificate is being devalued and fused into a sadness about the situation of the Church today,” Benedict laments, implying that Brandmüller’s distress over Pope Francis should not lead him and like-minded Catholics to the devaluing of Benedict’s entire pontificate.

It seems a step too far to recast all that Benedict did though the lens of his abdication. Yet in the division and anger of the present moment, that is a danger.

The Brandmüller letters were private and written long before this tumultuous summer. Now, however, they are the first public acknowledgement from Benedict that his resignation was distressing for those most devoted to him, and that it is being blamed for the difficulties that have marked the last few years.
If that is how Benedict saw matters 10 months ago, what must he think now?

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the September 28 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here