Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict and the ‘Secret Magisterium’

COMMENTARY: Why is it assumed by some of the Catholic press that the Pope Emeritus is undermining the Pope on priestly celibacy when he agrees with him?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks with Pope Francis during a Mass for elderly people in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks with Pope Francis during a Mass for elderly people in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 28, 2014. (photo: Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

A vigorous agreement has broken out in Rome, and there is rancor and recrimination all round. The new book by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah — or latterly by Cardinal Sarah with Benedict XVI — has occasioned much debate about authorship. Edward Pentin sorts through that here.

But the more puzzling question is this: Why is it assumed by the liberal Catholic press that Benedict is undermining Pope Francis on priestly celibacy when he agrees with him? The protests of those considered to be connected to Pope Francis’ inner circle — Austen Ivereigh, author of two biographies of the Holy Father; Gerard O’Connell of America magazine who, with his wife, Argentinian journalist Elisabetta Piqué, have been friends of the Pope since before his election — assume that Benedict defending priestly celibacy is frustrating the agenda of Pope Francis.

It’s not the first time it has happened. Some of those close to the Pope seem to think that what Pope Francis says is not what Pope Francis thinks. Therefore, to agree with his public statements is to really disagree with his private thinking. It is to contradict a secret magisterium that only a few are privileged to know.

Salvation by a secret knowledge is an ancient heresy called Gnosticism. In 2018, Pope Francis condemned new forms of Gnosticism at length in his exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exultate.

“Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic,” he wrote (40).

But that is only what he wrote in an official teaching document. Perhaps that is not what he thinks, and his vocal supporters in the media know what he really thinks. They would neither be ideological nor myopic, but possessed of the greater insight of the privileged few. Perhaps Pope Francis is really in favor of Gnosticism and progressive journalists have the gnosis.

Critics of the Benedict/Sarah book on priestly celibacy went so far as to suggest that the Pope Emeritus was offering a “parallel magisterium.” That’s too strong a claim; at most Benedict is offering a “reinforcing magisterium,” lending his great theological depth to reinforce arguments that Francis himself has made in passing.

Those very remarks — on the plane returning from Panama in January 2019 and more recently at the conclusion of the Amazon synod in October — were cited by the Holy See Press Office in direct response to the Benedict/Sarah book. Pope Francis made his own the famous phrase of St. Paul VI, that he “would rather give his life” than change the celibacy requirement.

Pope Francis has allowed that an exception might be made in remote areas — the Pacific Islands were the example he mentioned — but that he was opposed to making celibacy optional for priests.

Benedict XVI, like St. John Paul II before him, made exceptions, for former married Protestant clergy who wished to become Catholic priests. Benedict also allowed for special exceptions to be made in the “personal ordinariates” set up for former Anglicans.

So if Benedict supports Francis, and the Holy See communications officials make that point, why the agitation in the liberal Catholic press that Benedict is contradicting what Francis really thinks in his secret magisterium?

Four reasons: Germany’s synodal path; Amoris Laetitia; sexual abuse; homosexuality — all cases where some believe the secret magisterium is at work.

Pope Francis made it abundantly clear last June — amplified by Vatican departments later in the summer — that he did not want the German “synodal path” currently underway to proceed as a “binding” path, where Germany would refashion Catholic doctrine and discipline independent of the Church universal. The president of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, met with the Pope and dismissed his concerns as unfounded. The German synod went ahead. The Pope is officially against it; Cardinal Marx claims that he is secretly fine with it.

During the family synods prior to the publication of Amoris Laetitia in 2016, the Holy Father made it clear that doctrine was not being changed. The document itself did not change any doctrine. Bishops were told to provide guidelines for their dioceses. Some did so in continuity with Catholic doctrine and discipline. Others appealed to an ambiguous footnote to depart from that same doctrine and discipline. The former followed the magisterium; the latter apparently felt themselves to be following the secret magisterium.

Sexual abuse is more about governance than magisterial teaching, but the same principle can be applied. There have been several initiatives announced that were subsequently not implemented. Were officials following what Pope Francis promulgated in writing, or what he secretly wanted?

The issue of homosexuality has already provided the equivalent of St. John Paul II’s “Be not afraid” for this pontificate: “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis has repeatedly said that the teaching of the Catechism is his own teaching and has vigorously denounced what he calls “gender ideology.” Yet advocates like Jesuit Father James Martin claim the Holy Father to be sympathetic to his “LGBT” advocacy, which claims that the language of the Catechism is faulty. The “T” of transgender cannot find a syllable of support in any comments of Pope Francis. But what does Pope Francis really think? The progressive press appeals to his secret magisterium to contradict what the Holy Father actually says.

The liberal press do the Holy Father a great disservice, suggesting that he is conniving or manipulative or deceitful, teaching one thing in public and promoting another thing in private. It is more respectful to believe that the Holy Father says what he believes to be true.

There is no such thing as a secret magisterium. Benedict and Cardinal Sarah are in accord with Catholic teaching, as is Pope Francis.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.