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Is Pope Francis being upstaged by his opinionated predecessor?

Is Pope Francis being upstaged by his opinionated predecessor?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (left) greets Pope Francis at a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica in 2015. (Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

In 2005, as the College of Cardinals was preparing to elect a successor to the recently deceased Pope John Paul II, I wrote a column titled “Should the Papacy be Downsized?”

It was inspired by an intriguing book written by John R. Quinn, a retired archbishop of San Francisco. In “The Reform of the Papacy,” Quinn had proposed a lower-profile papal office and a more collegial relationship between the pope and bishops around the world.

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I wrote in the column that “a re-imagined papacy also would not have to be a lifetime office, sparing John Paul's successors the anguish he experienced in recent years, which, however edifying, is not an ordeal imposed on other aged bishops.”

The pope elected in 2005, Benedict XVI, did in fact resign in 2013, the first pope do so in almost 600 years. But Benedict, now called the “pope emeritus,” hasn’t abided by any vow of silence in his retirement.

That was clear this week when Benedict published an eyebrow-raising essay about the church’s sexual abuse crisis, the subject of a recent meeting of bishops and other church leaders convened by Pope Francis. NPR reported accurately that Benedict’s analysis of the crisis “differs significantly from that of his successor.”

While Francis has suggested that the sexual abuse crisis is linked to the “plague of clericalism,” Benedict blames a decline of traditional sexual morality in — you guessed it — the 1960s. He also denounces “homosexual cliques” in seminaries, an obsession for some conservative Catholics.

Benedict’s article, titled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” is turgid and not terribly surprising. It struck me as another volley in the by now tedious debate between liberal and conservative Catholics about the origins of the sexual-abuse crisis. Each faction has used the crisis to score points against the other.

Still, the fact that Benedict would write such a piece is notable. It already has led to headlines about “Pope vs. Pope” and indignation about how the document is being “weaponized” by opponents of Francis.

Some critics have pointed to a Vatican decree saying that a Bishop Emeritus “will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan bishop.” The suggestion is that the same rule should apply to a retired Bishop of Rome.

The natural assumption is that Francis is irked or offended by Benedict’s intervention, despite the fact that the article closes with an expression of gratitude to the current pope “for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.”

But consider another possibility: that Francis may not be all that bothered by decorous dissent from a living predecessor, precisely because it serves to demystify and, yes, downsize the papacy.

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