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Pope Francis May Have a Freer Hand After Death of Benedict

ROME—

Pope Francis

has been the leader of the Catholic Church for almost 10 years, but he has been the only pope in the Vatican just since Saturday.

The death of Pope Benedict XVI after a decade in retirement has ended an extraordinary arrangement that helped define the current pontificate. While Pope Francis has already taken a markedly different tack than his predecessor, he may feel even freer to do so now.

Benedict’s presence in smiling and mostly silent obedience to his successor was a reassuring sign to many conservatives of continuity in church leadership, and hence of support for Pope Francis. But that made Benedict’s occasional public statements all the more influential, especially when they indicated divergence with the current pope’s approach on matters including clerical sexual abuse and interfaith dialogue. Pope Francis, who stressed his esteem for his predecessor, had an interest in avoiding explicit disagreement.

Pope Benedict XVI, left, consistently refrained from criticizing his successor, Pope Francis, in public.



Photo:

L’Osservatore Romano/Associated Press

According to Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong who has been critical of the current pope’s rapprochement with China, Benedict was a restraining influence on Pope Francis on more than one occasion. In particular, he cites the decision by Pope Francis in 2020 not to make it easier to ordain married men as priests, after Benedict defended the tradition of clerical celibacy in his contribution to a book on the subject.

“Someone said that Pope Benedict, after his resignation, should have kept quiet and not created confusion in the Church. It seems to me quite the opposite: precisely because there is confusion in the Church, a Pope Emeritus, like every bishop and cardinal as long as he has breath and is of sound mind, must fulfill his duty as Successor of the Apostles to defend the sound tradition of the Church,” Cardinal Zen wrote on his personal website on Tuesday. “In crucial moments, even Pope Francis accepted this contribution of his predecessor, as when he defended the priestly celibacy of the Roman Church.”

Pope Francis is now also freer to establish a protocol for retired popes, to make it clearer that there is only one pontiff at a time, according to the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of the book “Inside the Vatican.” Critics on both left and right have said clearer rules are necessary to avoid confusion about the church’s leadership.

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“He could not do it while Benedict was alive, because it would have been seen as a criticism of Benedict and would have been seen as demeaning if the retired pope had been told to stop wearing white, not call himself pope and return to his baptismal name,” Father Reese said.

Benedict consistently refrained from criticizing his successor in public, which may have exerted a restraining influence on some of his conservative followers, an influence now lifted with his death.

Already, one of the late pope’s closest confidants has confirmed that Benedict privately disapproved of Pope Francis’ 2021 decision to impose restrictions on the use of the traditional Latin Mass, which largely undid Benedict’s lifting of restrictions in 2007.

“It hit him pretty hard. Pope Benedict read [Francis’ decree] with pain in his heart, because his intention had been to help those who simply found a home in the old Mass to find inner peace,” Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s private secretary, told a website affiliated with the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost in an interview released Saturday, the day of the retired pope’s death, though recorded months earlier.

Although Benedict is gone, he could still pose a challenge to Pope Francis and his allies in the realm of ideas. Benedict’s death and the commemorations around it could be the occasion for renewed public interest in his teaching, some of which is notably at variance with that of Pope Francis, said Sandro Magister, who writes about the Vatican for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine.

People gathered in Vatican City to mourn the death of retired Pope Benedict XVI. The late pontiff’s body will lie in state in St. Peter’s Basilica until Thursday, when Pope Francis will preside over his funeral. Photo: Vatican Media/Shutterstock

“Francis can’t free himself from the legacy of his predecessor, even if now his predecessor is no longer alive, because this legacy remains alive, insofar as his heirs know how to interpret and apply it,” Mr. Magister said.

Benedict argued for combating what he called a contemporary “dictatorship of relativism.” His emphasis on moral absolutes and defined truths contrasts sharply with much of Pope Francis’ agenda, including his greater leniency on homosexuality, contraception and divorce, Mr. Magister says.

Benedict’s ideas are highly influential among Catholic conservatives in the U.S. and in particular among younger clergy there.

Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, a leading progressive ally of Pope Francis among U.S. bishops, said recently that a concern with relativism, reflecting the influence of Benedict’s thought, helps explain why a 2021 survey found that half of younger American priests disapproved of Pope Francis, who is more willing than Benedict to allow for gray areas on contentious questions.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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