The Pope Emeritus In White

Pope Francis Appoints 19 New Cardinals at St. Peter's Basilica

Around the anniversary of Pope Benedict’s almost unprecedented resignation as Pope, there has been a predictable uptick in speculation about what actually happened and why. If he was forced out by scandal, then his resignation would not have been valid. So in response to some pointed questions from La Stampa, Benedict has gone public. Money quote:

There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry. The only condition for the validity of my resignation is the complete freedom of my decision. Speculations regarding its validity are simply absurd.

His rationale was declining health and energy in the face of huge problems – from the Vatican Bank to factionalism in the Curia to the resilient stain of the child-abuse scandal. We may never know the full story – but if we were able to read the report of three cardinals on corruption in the Church, we might get a better sense. It says something about the church’s dysfunction that such critical details about its governance are deemed too sensitive to be revealed to the people of God in the pews, who largely finance it. Maybe Francis might contemplate some sunlight there. It might presumably strengthen his hand against the Curia – or prompt sabotage and revenge.

I’m inclined to believe Benedict on this. It’s plausible, if not completely convincing. But here’s a statement in the letter I do find a little odd:

I continue to wear the white cassock and kept the name Benedict for purely practical reasons. At the moment of my resignation there were no other clothes available. In any case, I wear the white cassock in a visibly different way to how the Pope wears it. This is another case of completely unfounded speculations being made.

So your vestments are like musical chairs: you have to keep the ones you’re wearing at the time of your resignation?

Is he really saying that in the vast ornate closets in which he kept his bewildering variety of Liberace-style outfits, he couldn’t find a suitable one that in no way confused people about who might be the actual Pope? Not buying it. La Stampa elaborates on how Benedict maintains deference to Francis:

Benedict XVI proved this at last Saturday’s Consistory – which Francis had invited him to – when he took a seat along with the cardinal bishops instead of accepting the special seat that was offered to him. When Francis came up to him to greet and embrace him at the start and end of the ceremony, Benedict removed his zucchetto as a sign of respect and also to show that there is only one reigning Pope.

So he keeps his papal name and his white papal outfits, but removes his zucchetto. And his outfits remain as fabulous as ever.

(Photo: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, flanked by his former personal secretary and Prefect of the Pontifical House Georg Ganswein, greets cardinals as he leaves the St Peter’s Basilica at the end of the Consistory on February 22, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)