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Leaked letters: Benedict XVI rebukes criticism of resignation

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis attend the Ordinary Public Consistory at St Peter's Basilica on February 14, 2015 (Getty Images)

Benedict XVI rebuked a cardinal who criticised his decision to resign and take the title Pope Emeritus, leaked letters reveal.

In the letters – which were leaked to the German newspaper Bild, who then passed them to the New York Times – Benedict says he can understand the “deep-seated pain” his resignation caused. However, people’s anger at his decision is devaluing his entire pontificate, leading to it being “conflated with the sadness about the situation of the Church today.”

The New York Times says that the letters were addressed to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, one of the four ‘dubia’ cardinals, who had recently criticised Benedict’s resignation in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“The figure of ‘pope emeritus’ does not exist in the entire history of the Church,” the cardinal said. “The fact that a pope comes along and topples a 2,000-year-old tradition bowled over not just us cardinals.”

In his first letter, dated November 9, 2017, Benedict responds: “Eminence! You said that with ‘pope emeritus,’ I had created a figure that had not existed in the whole history of the Church. You know very well, of course, that popes have abdicated, albeit very rarely. What were they afterward? Pope emeritus? Or what else?”

He referred to the case of Pope Pius XII, who had prepared a resignation in case he was captured by the Nazis.

“As you know, Pius XII had prepared a declaration in case the Nazis were to arrest him, that from the moment of the arrest he would no longer be pope but once again cardinal.

“In my case it would certainly not have been sensible to simply claim a return to being cardinal. I would then have been constantly as exposed to the media as a cardinal is — even more so because people would have seen in me the former pope.”

“Whether on purpose or not, this could have had difficult consequences, especially in the context of the current situation,” he added.

Benedict added that he chose the title ‘pope emeritus’ to make it clear that he no longer holds the Petrine office.

“With ‘pope emeritus,’ I tried to create a situation in which I am absolutely not accessible to the media and in which it is completely clear that there is only one pope,” he wrote. “If you know of a better way, and believe that you can judge the one I chose, please tell me.”

In his second letter, Benedict said that a “new agitation is gradually being generated” which could inspire more books like Fabrizio Grasso’s ‘The Abdication’, which envisions a situation where multiple popes emeritus could dilute papal authority.

“All this fills me with concern, and it was precisely because of this that the end of your F.A.Z. interview so unsettled me, because it would ultimately promote the same mood.”

He concludes the letter: “Let’s pray, as you did with the end of your letter, that the Lord comes to the aid of his Church.”