Benedict XVI says his “conscience is clear” about resigning the papacy but that some of his “fanatical friends" are still unable to accept the decision.
“It was a difficult decision, but I made it in full awareness, and I believe I did the right thing,” says the retired Pope in an interview, given on the eighth anniversary that he left his office. “Some of my slightly ‘fanatical’ friends are still angry, they didn't want to accept my choice. I think of the conspiracy theories that followed it.”
He referenced some of the theories, including that his resignation was forced by the Vatileaks scandal, which saw Benedict’s butler leak sensitive documents; caused by a “gay lobby” in the Vatican or linked to the case of Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop and former member of the Society of Saint Pius X. In 2009, Williamson was among four bishops who had their excommunications lifted by Pope Benedict.
“They don't want to believe in a conscious choice. But my conscience is clear,” Benedict told Corriere della Sera.
By suggesting that somehow Benedict was coerced into stepping down, his supporters could question his resignation's validity and claim that he is still in office. The Pope Emeritus has always refuted this suggestion. Therefore, it is significant that in the interview, Benedict stressed his decision was made with a clear conscience and “full awareness” as, according to the Church’s Canon Law, the resignation of a Pope is valid when it is “made freely and properly manifested.” Benedict also refuted the idea that there are “two popes” and emphasised the unicity of the papacy.
During the 45-minute interview at his converted monastery residence in the Vatican gardens, Pope Emeritus talked about President Joe Biden's election, expressing some concerns about Biden’s policy stance on abortion.
“It’s true, he’s Catholic and observant. And personally, he is against abortion,” Benedict said. “But as president, he tends to present himself in continuity with the line of the Democratic Party....and on gender policy, we still don't really understand what his position is.”
On Francis’ forthcoming trip to Iraq, the retired Pope described it as “very important” although “unfortunately, it comes at a very difficult time, which also makes it a dangerous trip: for security reasons and for Covid. And then there is the unstable Iraqi situation. I will accompany Francis with my prayers.”
Benedict’s resignation, which was announced on 11 February 2013 and took effect 17 days later, threw the Church into unchartered territory. Never before had there been two men in the Vatican wearing the white cassock and calling themselves Pope.
In 2014, the Pope Emeritus confessed to a German journalist that he wanted to be “Father Benedict” in retirement but apparently “was too weak at that point to enforce it.”
Yet sources say he did not want to renege on the promise he made to God in 2005 on his papal election. As a result, he continued to keep the symbols of the papal office. But Catholic theology and tradition unequivocally rule there can be only one pope, and Benedict XVI’s retirement has created some confusing optics, along with the claim of a competing papal court.
In 2016, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s private secretary, talked about an “expanded” Petrine Office with “an active member” and a “contemplative.” However, this idea has been strongly questioned across the Catholic spectrum. Cardinal George Pell, a leading conservative figure, has recently called for stronger protocols on the status of retired popes for the sake of Church unity.
Noting the potential divisiveness of having “two popes”, a 2019 editorial in The Tablet also argued that “structural safeguards, even changes in canon law, are needed to remind the Church there is only one Pope.”