On Monday, March 10, 2013, a day before the start of the conclave that was to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as successor to Benedict XVI, Robert Moynihan, founder of Inside the Vatican magazine and a well-known conservative Vatican supporter, passed by the Vatican with an old cardinal. Conscious that he would answer no questions about the conclave which was about to open, he confined himself to greeting him and telling him that he loved Benedict XVI very much. To which, the Cardinal with an expression of sadness and concern – as Moynihan recalled – replied: “Me too, but that should never have happened, he should never have left his post.” And after making a silence, he continued: “It’s like a man and a wife, a husband and a wife, a father and a mother… what are they saying?… they say, ’til death do them part’. They stay together forever.”
The episode is probably the one that best reflects the atmosphere in the Vatican between February and March 2013, after learning of Benedict XVI’s decision to resign from office. “We live in difficult times, please pray for us,” the cardinal asked before saying goodbye to Moynihan that evening. It was the first time a pope had voluntarily resigned in over 700 years, since Celestine V decided to abdicate the throne of Saint Peter after a few months in office. It was an “exceptional” decision, as the pope emeritus himself pointed out in one of his long interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, where he also detailed behind the scenes of his decision, excluding alleged pressure for him to leave office, as assured by some Vaticanists. “Nobody tried to blackmail me. If that had happened, I wouldn’t have left,” he said.
His resignation surprised everyone, or almost – only four people were aware of his decision – that on February 11, 2013, when he announced it in the hall of the consistory, in front of the college of cardinals gathered to know the dates future canonizations. . “After examining my conscience several times before God, I have come to the certainty that my strength, considering my advanced age, no longer corresponds to that of an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. […] For this reason, and fully aware of the gravity of this act, I freely declare that I resign from the ministry of Bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter.” He said in Latin, which prevented many from immediately understanding his announcement, until Ansa agency reporter Giovanna Chirri broke the news to the world.
The information triggered a real earthquake, raising all kinds of speculation about the real reasons for his resignation. Speculations that even the subsequent explanations of the pope emeritus himself did not help to clarify. The reason: The event happened amid the so-called Vatileaks scandal, over the leaking of papal documents by the pontiff’s personal secretary Paolo Gabriele – who claimed he did it to protect the pope himself from pressure from the Curia. A situation that even led Benedict XVI to appoint a special commission of three cardinals to investigate the matter in April 2012, whose report has never been made public. According to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, behind the resignation were the growing power struggles within the Roman Curia itself.
The resignation has also generated an unprecedented scenario in the Catholic Church and a debate which is not completely closed on the condition of Benedict XVI. The Vatican Constitution does not establish the existence of a pope emeritus, a quality which is conferred on bishops only after having renounced their dioceses because of their age in accordance with the provisions of the Second Vatican Council. For this reason, some argue that Joseph Ratzinger should have regained his status as a bishop after his resignation and could not continue to wear the white cassock typical of popes. However, according to Benedict XVI’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Ratzinger renounced his papal role, but not his status as pope. , a subtlety that gave rise to another debate, that of the unprecedented existence of two popes in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis himself continued to call Benedict “His Holiness” until his death.
Despite the above, Joseph Ratzinger tried to refute all speculations about his resignation in the following years. As he told Peter Seeweld, he began to ponder the decision to pull out after the trip to Cuba and Mexico in 2012, as his doctor told him he couldn’t make another transatlantic flight, which would prevent him from going to World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013. “It was clear that he had to resign in time for the new pope to plan this trip,” he said. That’s why, in the summer of 2012, he made the decision and only wrote his resignation speech “about 14 days before he let it be known.”