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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Just a few weeks ago Archbishop George Gänswein was insisting that it is perfectly possible to live with two masters.
But the latest interview given by the Prefect to the Papal Household, who is also private secretary to the Pope Emeritus, suggests otherwise.
Archbishop Gänswein said in a German television documentary that he would have preferred other candidates to succeed Benedict XVI:
“I had favoured other candidates – I was wrong – but then so were other people.”
By stating that he would have preferred that someone other than Pope Francis had been elected to the Chair of Peter he has made his own position untenable.
And with more than a hint of sourness he then said that at the moment the Pope is the darling of the media “but that won’t always be the case”. The Pope is not “everybody’s darling”, he adds, using the English phrase.
Almost as controversially, he uses his position as a conduit between two popes to divulge that Francis sought his predecessor’s views concerning his interview with Antonio Spadaro, the Italian Jesuit and editor of La Civiltà Cattolica.
“I took the text to the Holy Father [sic], explained what the Pope had said and showed him the blank page. Three days later Benedict handed me four pages of reflections, notes and supplements concerning certain questions – things one might go into in more detail elsewhere – most interesting.”
Gänswein revels in the fact that he has had sight of Benedict’s comments and carried them off to Pope Francis, though he says that, of course, he wouldn’t dream of divulging them. Isn’t revealing their existence in itself a breach of confidence to both his masters?
Archbishop Gänswein seems to be emboldened to speak more frankly with each interview. There have been quite a number of these recently to coincide with the anniversary of Pope Benedict’s resignation and the completion of the first year of Francis’ pontificate. In each one he stresses that relations between the two popes are cordial. If they are, this latest interview will do nothing to further this happy state of affairs.
When it was announced that the Pope Emeritus would take up residence in a convent within the Vatican walls, many people expressed concerns that having two popes in close proximity would be problematic. In fact, most Catholics think the arrangement works reasonably well. The findings of The Tablet’s recent online survey confirms this.
What instead rings hollow is Archbishop Gänswein’s claim to be an effective “bridge” between his two masters. The tears he was seen shedding as Benedict left office bear testimony to his closeness to the Pope Emeritus and his recent words show where his loyalties lie.
Pope Francis has kept Gänswein at arm’s length by choosing to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than Apostolic Palace where the Prefect of the Papal Household holds sway. Looked at with hindsight that was a wise decision.
It would be even better if Archbishop Gänswein were now to devote himself exclusively to serving the Pope Emeritus – or leave Rome altogether.
Elena Curti is The Tablet's Deputy Editor