For years Joseph Ratzinger has been at the epicenter of a tsunami of fake news.
Even as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was unfairly dubbed the “Panzer cardinal” or “God’s Rottweiler” for his defense of orthodox Catholic teaching. Things only got worse after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, and they did not get much better after he resigned. Wherever Ratzinger went, polemics soon followed. Most of the time, it was unwarranted and contrary to his intentions.
A book vindicating him was, therefore, long overdue.
This is what his personal secretary, friend, and confidant Archbishop Georg Gänswein claims to have attempted in his newly released book Nient’altro che la verità (Italian for “Nothing but the truth.”)
Whether he succeeded in this endeavor is questionable. Even more debatable is whether the positive aspects of this book outweigh the harm it is bound to cause.
The book was announced a few days after Benedict XVI’s death, while his body was still lying in state. The book’s launch in Italy was on January 12, a mere week after his burial.
Since its announcement, the media have presented the book as revealing “tensions” between Benedict and his successor. It’s likely that this book is to be received by Francis’s critics as a vindication of their narrative. Following Benedict’s resignation nearly a decade ago, papal critics have pushed countless artificial controversies portraying the Pope Emeritus as a semi-hidden internal antagonist to Francis’s pontificate.
In an ironic twist of fate, Gänswein’s book actually dispels many of those earlier controversies.
Although Benedict’s own resignation speech cites his failing health as the reason for his voluntary retirement, conspiracy theories abounded. Certain commentators advanced the idea that Benedict had been forced to resign due to a “gay mafia” or the Vatileaks scandal, for example. In chapter 7 of Nothing but the truth, Gänswein explains that Benedict did indeed decide to resign due to health reasons, taking into consideration his inability to travel as the 2013 World Youth Day in Brazil approached.
Additionally, some claimed that Benedict’s resignation was invalid due to the way his announcement was worded, making a distinction between the Latin words munus and ministerium. But Gänswein details the redaction process that led to the resignation’s wording. He describes the redactors’ limitations—due to the high secrecy of the project, involving few people—and the zeal to make the text canonically valid.
The archbishop also clarifies that the Pope Emeritus continued to wear white for pragmatic reasons; to avoid a complete renewal of his wardrobe, not—as has been claimed—as a sign that he had not truly resigned.
There were also allegations that Benedict was a prisoner in the Vatican, and the idea that Francis had effectively “gagged” him to prevent him from expressing his contradictory views. Gänswein explains that Benedict willingly adopted a monastic lifestyle, and that Pope Francis even wanted him to “see more people, to go out, and participate in the life of the Church.”
Moreover, Gänswein demystifies the contents of a message sent by Benedict to be read at the funeral of Cardinal Meisner—one of the dubia cardinals—and which was construed as a veiled criticism against Pope Francis.
Finally, and most importantly, Gänswein recounts the episode of Benedict’s alleged co-authorship with Cardinal Sarah of a book on clerical celibacy that would have been intended to interfere with Pope Francis’s decision-making following the 2019 Synod on the Amazon. As was noted in an official statement at the time—and contrary to the insistence of Francis’s critics—Benedict never intended to be co-author of that book and even less to obstruct the work of the synod. His contributions to Sarah’s book were based on a misunderstanding.
According to Gänswein’s account, Benedict tried to distance himself from this scandal, while avoiding further embarrassment to his friend Cardinal Sarah. These efforts, however, were thwarted by the cardinal’s inappropriate and untimely reactions and statements during the controversy. For example, Cardinal Sarah wrote a series of inflammatory tweets, and released private correspondence between Benedict and himself on social media without authorization. One new detail revealed by Gänswein is that Sarah tried to convince Benedict to sign a pre-written press release endorsing the cardinal’s side of the story.
Throughout each of these public controversies, Francis’s critics promoted groundless conjectures and dismissed the reasonable alternatives advanced by pro-Francis apologists. Now, all these theories have been decisively debunked in Gänswein’s new book.
However, it is very unlikely that these critics will retract and reevaluate their stances, because Gänswein also adds some fuel to the fire.
And that is where people will direct their focus.
Let’s be clear: it would be unreasonable to expect Benedict to fully agree with every decision Francis made as pope. They are different people with different styles and different concerns. This was also the case with Benedict and his predecessor. For example, Gänswein describes how Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expressed “dissonance” and “perplexity” about Pope John Paul II’s participation in the 1986 Assisi encounters. Yet few would ever claim that Benedict was unfaithful to his predecessor based on that.
However, the media coverage for Gänswein’s book has zoomed in precisely on the supposed “tensions” between Benedict and Francis. As someone who witnessed most of the controversies involving Benedict XVI up close, Archbishop Gänswein should have known this was going to happen when he released the book.
Complicating this even more, the book is not just only dedicated to vindicating Benedict, as it’s supposedly intended. It’s also seemingly written with the purpose of vindicating Gänswein.
This doesn’t happen only in the chapters depicting Benedict’s coexistence with Pope Francis. In chapter 5, Archbishop Gänswein defends his own actions during the Vatileaks scandal and also regarding his response during a 2012 reemergence of the controversy surrounding the the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi in the 1980s. In the previous chapter, Gänswein even states that the previous papal secretary, Josef Clemens, had a “certain jealousy” towards him.
His defensive stance is even more visible in chapter 8, where Gänswein recounts the scandal involving Cardinal Sarah’s book. After giving his account of the events, Gänswein dedicates a whole section of that chapter to describing how this episode allegedly led to his falling out with Pope Francis.
In this section, titled “Il prefetto dimezzato” (“The halved prefect”) Gänswein explains that he and Francis were never able to “create the appropriate climate of trust necessary to adequately carry out” Gänswein’s duties as Prefect of the Papal Household. The archbishop goes on to describe how, in the wake of Cardinal Sarah’s controversy, Francis sidelined Gänswein, removing him from his duties and demoting him to a mere caretaker for the aged Benedict.
During this episode, Benedict completely fades into the background, a strange situation for the supposed protagonist of this book. The Pope Emeritus only intervenes by writing a couple of letters interceding for his friend, and by telling him something that has been widely quoted in the media: “It seems Pope Francis doesn’t trust me anymore, and is making you my guardian.”
According to Gänswein, Benedict said this “half-jokingly,” but Ganswein does not clarify whether Benedict meant it as a swipe at Francis or as merely a way of consoling his friend.
What is indeed clear is that Gänswein felt “humiliated” by Francis’s harshness towards him. The archbishop admits that what he’s writing may be “brutal” and “inelegant,” but “it’s the truth,” and “there’s no way around it.”
In other words, this part of the book is more expressly about the tensions between Francis and Gänswein than the tensions between Francis and Benedict.
Curiously, the supposed tensions between Francis and Benedict are expressed in a completely different way.
For example, Gänswein says that Benedict reacted with “perplexity” to Amoris Laetitia—the same word used to describe Ratzinger’s reaction to John Paul II and the Assisi encounters. But Benedict never gave public expression to this, either verbally or in writing, because to the Pope Emeritus, to do so would be “an illicit intrusion.”
Regarding Traditionis Custodes, Gänswein also suggests that Benedict may have considered it to be in error. However, he writes that the Pope Emeritus was also clear that “the responsibility of these decisions befalls the reigning pontiff.”
Many of these incidents lack direct quotes from the Pope Emeritus but are reconstructions that Gänswein pieces together from Benedict’s thoughts and actions on these topics when he was reigning pope. It’s public knowledge that Benedict upheld the previous sacramental discipline regarding the divorced and civilly remarried in Sacramentum Caritatis, which was later superseded by Francis in Amoris Laetitia’s. It’s also known that Traditionis Custodes abrogated Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio that widened permission for the celebration of the 1962 Roman Missal.
In the end, however, knowing what Benedict did in the past leads us to nothing more than extrapolations. One thing is made clear in Gänswein’s book, though. Whatever opinions the Pope Emeritus held on these contentious topics, he was very keen on not interfering with his successor’s papacy. A quote from elsewhere in the book confirms Benedict’s humility and obedience even further:
Obviously, the differences in the ways both popes respectively dealt with the issues that arose during their pontificates were evident to all. But Benedict, though some have tried to goad him, has never hypothesized his own explanations for Francis’ strategy. In fact, it seems to me that the most correct analysis might identify that the problem is not so much the coexistence of two popes, one reigning and one emeritus, as the emergence and development of two fan bases, because as time went on, it became increasingly apparent that there were indeed two visions of the Church. And these two fan bases — each founded on statements, gestures, or even mere impressions of Francis’s and Benedict’s attitudes (moreover, sometimes with completely gratuitous inventions) — created the tension that later reverberated even among those who were not acutely aware of the ecclesiastical dynamics. (pp. 241-242).
An ironic statement, given that Nothing but the Truth provides fodder to this very same partisan war. According to Gänswein himself, the constant “contrasting between the reigning Francis and the emeritus Benedict … has always saddened Ratzinger, especially when the observations came from within the Vatican” (p. 239).
Throughout the book, the relationship between Benedict and Francis is, disagreements notwithstanding, always depicted as nothing less than affable. Several times we see both exchanging nice words about each other. The veracity of this depiction was reinforced recently by the news that when he was informed of Benedict’s death, Francis is said to have arrived at his bedside side within ten minutes to pray and pay his respects.
We are left with some important questions, however, that require answers. Why did Archbishop Gänswein decide to publish this book now, announcing it while Benedict was still lying in state? It is unlikely that Gänswein secured a publisher’s contract on such short notice. Was this contract signed while Benedict was still alive?
This raises other questions: did Benedict know about this book? Did he give permission to be quoted in a book of this nature? If so, it’s hard to reconcile this fact with the image the book itself gives us: of someone taking great pains not to interfere with his successor’s pontificate.
But if not, then how can one believe, from what is revealed in Nothing but the Truth, that Benedict would have been pleased with this book and with the fallout likely to emerge from it?
Benedict’s obedience to the pope was not merely circumstantial. It was an intrinsic part of his life even in previous pontificates. In the early pages of his book, Gänswein quotes both Popes Paul VI and John Paul I explaining that Ratzinger’s elevation to the cardinalate was justified not only by his proficient intellect, but also by his fidelity to the magisterium.
As emeritus, Benedict embraced this fidelity in an exemplary way. It overflowed from his interior life. It is quite unfortunate therefore, that his name is linked to public airing of grievances against Pope Francis in both life and death. His memory deserves better than this.
It’s true that Gänswein’s new book shows a more personal side of Benedict, more affable and relatable—and true to his personality—than what we’re used to seeing on the mass media. Gänswein also debunks the major controversies surrounding his pontificate, from the Regensburg address, to his AIDS/condoms intervention and his cancelled speech at the University La Sapienza.
However, there’s nothing groundbreaking in these refutations. Gänswein’s proximity to these events doesn’t seem to provide additional insights. Everything the archbishop says could be found in Catholic apologetics websites at the time. On the other hand, this defense of the late pontiff’s legacy is marred by an emphasis on the differences between Francis and Benedict, which is something that—the book says so— “saddened” the Pope Emeritus.
In short, a book vindicating Pope Benedict was long overdue. Unfortunately, this was not the vindication Ratzinger deserved.
Image credits: Papst Franziskus Erzbisch of Gänswein; Cristoph Wagener, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.