Benedict, Sarah, Francis, and the Case of the Exploding Pope

Benedict, Sarah, Francis, and the Case of the Exploding Pope January 14, 2020

There’s been quite a kerfuffle in Catholic news, the past several days.

A very long time ago in internet years, I think it was at the beginning of last weekend, Catholic social media erupted with the news that Cardinal Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were publishing a book together. The book, entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts, was a defense of priestly celibacy. As such, we were told by the Traditionalists, it would be a massive blow to the face of evil liberal Pope Francis who hates celibacy and is determined to destroy it– except that Pope Francis doesn’t and isn’t. But we mustn’t let the truth get in the way of a good outrage. Meanwhile, the Eastern Christian churches in and out of communion with Rome, who have quietly been ordaining married men for thousands of years, rolled their eyes and went about their business as usual.

The controversy over this began immediately. Traditionalists hailed Benedict and Sarah, even crowing that Sarah should be elected the next Pope. Other people mentioned that until we read the book we won’t know whether it actually did slap Pope Francis in the face– especially considering Pope Francis isn’t against priestly celibacy and Pope Emeritus Benedict had said he wanted to live a quiet life without interfering with the current pontiff when he abdicated his position. Still others, including me, pointed out that the Pope is ninety-two years old and stated to be extremely frail. Over on Twitter, I expressed my opinion that this might not actually be a book written by Benedict, but an attempt to cash in on Benedict’s name in his old age.

I was quickly rebuked that this was an insult to the Pope Emeritus. This surprised me. I don’t consider it insulting to point out that an old, frail person is old and frail or that 92-year-old retired men don’t often write complicated theological texts. I also don’t consider it insulting to the Pope Emeritus to suggest that other people might want to cash in on his name. He’s a world renowned theologian. Of course people would want to use his name for their own purposes. People always use theologians for their own purposes. It’s been pointed out to me that no one reads the Pope Emeritus’s works just for the sake of the works themselves. They either read him to decry him as a Nazi or they read him in order to score gotcha points in a culture war.

In any case, love him or hate him (and I love him), Pope Emeritus Benedict isn’t God. He’s a man, a devout and learned man, and he’s frail and elderly, and he promised he was going to keep quiet after he resigned. Yet, here he’s being called the co-author of a text that everyone is sure is going to sass the current Pope. I smelled a rat, as did many others.

And, indeed, it turns out we were right. Yesterday afternoon, a source close to the Pope Emeritus cried foul. This source was revealed today to be Archbishop Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary and prefect of the papal household.  Gänswein insisted that Benedict never saw the cover of the book, didn’t know he was going to be cited as an author, and actually only submitted one essay to be used under a different circumstance. He had nothing to do with anything else.

Cardinal Sarah was understandably miffed at this revelation. He decried it as “defamation of exceptional gravity” and tweeted a picture of a letter allegedly from Pope Emeritus Benedict telling him “I agree that the text be published in the form you have foreseen.” But Gänswein says that this statement from Benedict just meant that Sarah was entitled to use the single essay.

“Attacks seem to imply a lie on my part,” tweeted the flustered Cardinal, which… well,  yes, they do. They more than imply it. The only logical explanation for this is that somebody lied in order to exploit an aged ex-pontiff. I have my opinions about who did, and I could be wrong. But somebody did, that’s for certain.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has reportedly asked that his name be removed from the book, but who’s listening to him? It’s never been about what Benedict wants. It’s about controversy and using him to score points, as it ever was. This is how we’re accustomed to take our theological texts of any kind: not as truths to be pondered, but as cannon balls to lob at people we don’t like.

The winner in all of this is Ignatius Press, who as of three hours ago are insisting that they’re still going to go ahead and publish the book with Benedict listed as co-author. I somehow doubt that this book would have sold half as many copies if there hadn’t been this kerfuffle over the authorship. No matter what goes on the cover now, they’re going to make bank.

Meanwhile, the theologian Massimo Faggioli tweeted “This scandal reminds me of the disgrace of the physician of Pius XII.” And I encourage you to google that if, like me, you had no idea that Pope Pius XII famously exploded while lying in state. This is something they didn’t cover in Seton Home Study School. It’s a harrowing story and much more interesting to recount than the current scandal. In brief: it seems that Pius XII did not want his internal organs removed after his death but preferred to go into the ground as God made him, so his unscrupulous personal physician tried a different embalming method. The physician claimed that he was using the same embalming method used on Jesus Christ as he covered the dead pontiff in spices and covered the spices in an air-tight cloth. The result was that, when the cloth was removed and Pius was laid out in his fine papal regalia one last time, his chest cavity burst, spewing green fluid all over the place. Several members of the Swiss Guard fainted from the fumes.

What does this have to do with the current scandal? Well, I don’t know what Faggioli had in mind with that tweet– he has an article today which is quite relevant,but I find the tweet a mystery. I suppose that to me, the scandal of the exploding Pope reminds us that there’s only one Jesus Christ. There’s only one God. The rest of us are human beings, and human beings grow old and are liable to be exploited by unscrupulous caregivers; we try to honor God in foolish ways and create a mess. God will redeem all our silliness in the end, but in the meanwhile, here we are. When we are young, as Christ Himself reminded the first Pope, we dress ourselves and go where we please. When we grow old, someone will wrap us in a tarp and take us where we do not wish to go.

It’s wrong to set up idols– saints you feel especially close to, friends you love deeply, heroes and role models you admire, certainly, but never idols. And it’s always wrong to use another person as a weapon to smack anyone you feel isn’t pious in the right way. Don’t exploit a human being either as an idol for worship or a tool for scoring points. That’s our lesson from all of this.

I hope Ignatius Press enjoys spending their big pile of money.

(image via Pixabay)





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