ROME – Americans of a certain age grew up knowing there were two subjects you didn’t discuss at the dinner table: Religion and politics. Both stir deep and often uncontrollable passions, a problem that gets even worse when you weave the two topics together.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a surprise trip by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI to his native Bavaria to be with his dying brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, seems to be stoking fevered political and religious imaginations.
Since the trip was announced Thursday, Benedict’s first outside Italy since his resignation seven years ago, various versions of the following theories have bubbled up in the German and Italian press, as well as in on-line discussions:
- Benedict XVI will never return to Rome, because, like his namesake St. Benedict, he’s disgusted by the corruption of the Eternal City and wishes to flee into a sort of 21st century hermitage.
- Benedict won’t come back because he’s unable to support the direction being set by Pope Francis, so declining to return after his brother’s death is his final, albeit silent, form of protest. (This despite the fact that Benedict sought, and received, Francis’s approval before undertaking the journey.)
- Benedict will stay in Germany in order to serve as a counterweight to the progressive line of the majority of the country’s bishops, as they embark on a controversial two-year “synodal journey” featuring issues such as clerical celibacy, sexual morality and women in the Church. (That seems to be the most titillating prospect for the German press in particular.)
I’m undoubtedly skipping something, because, at a certain point, I just stopped paying attention. For the record, the Vatican has denied that Benedict won’t be coming back, but as ever, that hasn’t stopped anyone from gaming scenarios.
As it turns out, the speculation was short-lived since the Diocese of Regensburg announced today that Benedict XVI will return to Rome tomorrow morning.
It’s tempting to dismiss such obviously premature scenarios as silly, except for two points.
First, we’re talking about a 93-year-old man making perhaps the final trip of his life to be with the person to whom he’s closest on this earth before he dies. It would be nice if Benedict could do so without having to ponder the politics of the situation, and without feeling pressure to cut the trip short or do something else because of anxiety over popular reaction.
It’s worth recalling that the three Ratzinger children – Georg, Joseph, and their sister Maria, who died in 1991 – were tight-knit growing up, in part because their father, a Bavarian policeman, took a series of increasingly lower-level positions throughout the 1930s in order to stay as far away as possible from the rising power of the National Socialists. The family relocated several times over just a few years, meaning the children repeatedly were uprooted from their friends and learned to fall back on one another.
So close were the two brothers that they obtained permission to be ordained together on the same day in 1951, and they celebrated their first public Masses back-to-back in the village of Hufschlag outside the city of Traunstein in Bavaria where the family had settled. (At the time, concelebration was still considered exceptional.) Maria, their sister, never married and would later become a secretary and caretaker for the future pope, living in his Rome apartment in the Piazza Leonina, following through on a promise to their mother and father to take care of the brothers. She died in Bavaria in 1991, following a massive heart attack during a visit to their parents’ tomb.
On that occasion, the future Benedict XVI wasn’t able to get home in time, missing his sister’s final hours. It’s understandable, therefore, that he’s especially motivated to be there for his brother.
Given all that, simple decency would seem to dictate restraint from making an already anguished situation worse by burdening it with conspiracy theories and political conjecture.
Second, all of this also helps explain why the emeritus pope hasn’t been living in Regensburg with his brother all along.
When Benedict XVI retired in 2013, according to several senior churchmen who were close to the pope, his original hope was to return to Regensburg and resume a sort of private life. He had to be persuaded, according to those sources, to remain in the Vatican.
In part, the argument boiled down to simple logistics, since in the Vatican he’d already have security and support staff, whereas all that would have to be built from scratch in Regensburg. In part, however, the argument was also based on politics – by remaining in the Vatican, the theory held, Benedict would be less of a distraction to his successor because no one would think he was setting up a rival papal court, and it would be harder for people to exploit him as an alternate source of authority.
As one cardinal put it to me at the time, “it’ll be harder for people to get to him” behind the walls of the Vatican.
There may be some validity to those concerns, and experts on the papacy will have to sift through the experience under Francis and Benedict to assess the best future course.
In the meantime, however, the point is that Church politics and overactive imaginations arguably already have cost Benedict eight years he could have shared with his brother, in a far deeper way than talking on the phone and seeing one another a couple times a year. (Of course, Georg could have joined his brother in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery, but that would have meant abandoning Bavaria.)
There’s an irony somewhere in all this about it being precisely the people ostensibly most concerned about the independence of the papacy who, by chronically over-interpreting everything, end up pressuring popes and constraining their choices perhaps more than anybody else.
But for now, perhaps the most immediate take-away is that this would be a good time to take a step back, go silent except for prayer, and let this intimate human drama play out. Rest assured, once the Ratzinger brothers have said their final good-byes, there will be plenty of time to joust, if we must, over what it all meant.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.