VATICAN CITY—Two Pontiffs, both wearing white, both called “Pope” and living a few meters from each other, with the same key aide serving them.
The Vatican’s announcement on Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “Pope Emeritus” in his retirement, be called “Your Holiness” and continue to wear the white cassock associated with the papacy has fueled concerns about potential conflicts arising from the peculiar reality now facing the Catholic Church: having one reigning and one retired Pope.
Benedict’s title and what he will wear have been a major source of speculation since the 85-year-old Pontiff stunned the world and announced he would resign on Thursday, the first Pope to do so in 600 years.
There has been good reason why Popes haven’t stepped down in past centuries, given the possibility for divided allegiances and even schism. But the Vatican insists that while the situation created by Benedict’s retirement is certainly unique, no major conflicts will arise.
“According to the evolution of Catholic doctrine and mentality, there is only one Pope. Clearly it’s a new situation, but I don’t think there will be problems,” Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, said in an interview.
Critics aren’t so sure. Some Vatican-based cardinals have privately grumbled that it will make it more difficult for the next Pope with Benedict still around.
Swiss theologian Hans Küng, Benedict’s onetime colleague-turned-critic, went further: “With Benedict XVI, there is a risk of a shadow Pope who has abdicated but can still indirectly exert influence,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last week.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on Tuesday that Benedict himself decided on his name and wardrobe in consultation with others, settling on “Your Holiness Benedict XVI” and either “Pope Emeritus” or “Roman Pontiff Emeritus.”
Lombardi said he didn’t know why Benedict had decided to drop his other main title: Bishop of Rome.
In the two weeks since Benedict’s resignation announcement, Vatican officials had suggested that Benedict would likely resume wearing the traditional black garb of a cleric and would use the title “Bishop Emeritus of Rome” to avoid creating confusion with the future Pope.
Adding to the concern is that Benedict’s trusted secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, will be serving both Pontiffs—living with Benedict at the monastery being converted for him inside Vatican grounds while keeping his day job as prefect of the new Pope’s household.
Asked about the potential for conflict, Lombardi was defensive, saying the decisions had been clearly reasoned and were likely chosen for the sake of simplicity.
“I believe it was well thought out,” he said.
Benedict himself has made clear he is retiring to a lifetime of prayer and meditation “hidden from the world.” But he still will be very present in the tiny Vatican city-state, where his new home is right next door to the Vatican Radio transmission tower and has a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Küng said it was a mistake for Gänswein to serve both men and for Benedict to remain so close to the center of action.
“No priest likes it if his predecessor sits next to the rectory and watches everything he does,” Küng was quoted as saying in Der Spiegel. “And even for the bishop of Rome, it is not pleasant if his predecessor constantly has an eye on him.”