Pope Benedict’s ‘Conscience Is Clear’ Regarding His 2013 Resignation

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks candidly on several topics including his decision to resign, Joe Biden's presidency, and Pope Francis traveling to Iraq in a new interview with an Italian newspaper.

Screenshots of the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera featuring Pope Benedict XVI in a new interview Feb. 28. 2021.
Screenshots of the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera featuring Pope Benedict XVI in a new interview Feb. 28. 2021. (photo: Screenshot / Corriere Della Sera)

VATICAN CITY — In a rare new interview, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said his “conscience is clear” about his resignation from the papacy eight years ago, that there is “only one Pope,” and that his decision to resign was a “conscious choice” and unrelated to “conspiracy theories.” 

“It was a painful decision, but I believe I did the right thing. My conscience is clear,” Benedict XVI told Corriere della Sera’s senior correspondent Massimo Franco.

The 45-minute interview, which took place at Benedict’s Mater Ecclesiae residence in the Vatican Gardens on Feb. 28 — eight years to the day since his departure from the apostolic palace — covered a variety of issues including U.S. President Joe Biden, about whom Benedict expressed some reservations. 

“It’s true, he’s Catholic and observant. And personally he is against abortion,” Benedict observed. “But as president, he tends to present himself in continuity with the line of the Democratic Party. .... And on gender policy we still don't really understand what his position is,” he said. 

Corriere della Sera, however, gave most prominence to Benedict’s views on his resignation, headlining the interview “Ratzinger, 8 Years Ago the Resignation — ‘There Are Not Two Popes.’” 

“It was a difficult decision,” Benedict XVI recalled. “But I made it in full awareness, and I think I did the right thing. Some of my friends who are a bit ‘fanatical’ are still angry, they didn't want to accept my choice.”

He remarked on “the conspiracy theories” that followed his resignation, saying that “some said it was because of the Vatileaks scandal, others because of a gay lobby plot, others because of the case of the conservative Lefebvrian theologian Richard Williamson.” 

“They don't want to believe it was a conscious choice, but my conscience is clear,” he said. 


‘Only One Pope’

The interview also made a point of only Francis being Pope: “The Pope is only one,” Franco quoted Benedict as saying, and observed the Pope Emeritus “tapping the palm of his hand lightly on the armrest, as if he wanted to give the words the force of a definitive affirmation.” 

This matter is of considerable frustration to Benedict, who is aware of heated debates that ensued after his election that he may still, in some way, be pope. Proponents of such arguments say these have been partly fueled by Benedict’s own comments, his willingness to retain many external trappings of the papacy (leading to calls by Cardinal George Pell and others for set protocols for retired popes), and especially a 2016 Rome speech by his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein.

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who served as president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences under Benedict, has been a leading critic of the resignation, regretting that Benedict did not consult his fellow cardinals before making the decision, and that the institution of Pope Emeritus “doesn’t exist in all of Church history and in canon law.”

According to Franco, Benedict seemed in the interview to want to “exorcise” the “disorientation, astonishment and slander” that accompanied his decision to resign. 

“The unicity of the papacy is self-evident to him,” Franco wrote, adding that in his view, that understanding does not apply “to some sectors of conservative Catholicism that are particularly implacable in their hostility to Francis.”

This was not the first time Benedict had insisted on this point with Franco. He appeared to voice similar concerns when the two met in 2019, saying, “The Pope is one, he is Francis” — although it wasn’t clear if Benedict himself had said it, or Franco was quoting someone else. This time, however, the words seemed clearer.

This latest interview began with a deliberate nod to commonalities between Pope Francis and Benedict XVI as Franco described being shown Benedict’s “Guardini Room” — so called because it houses, among other things, the complete works of the 20th century German-Italian theologian Father Romano Guardini, a favorite of both Benedict and Francis. 


His Mind Remains Clear

Franco then went on to describe Benedict’s physical well-being: His sentences were halting, he wrote, “the voice is a breath, it comes and goes,” and Archbishop Gänswein “repeats and ‘translates” a few of the Pope Emeritus’ words “while Benedict nods with approval.” 

He added that Benedict’s “mind remains clear, as quick as the eyes, attentive and lively” with his “white hair slightly long under the white papal skullcap” and that “from the sleeves spring two very thin wrists that underline an image of great physical fragility.” He also wears “a watch on his left wrist and on his right a strange device that looks like another watch but is actually an alarm ready to go off if something happens to him.”

For Benedict, the routines of the day remain “habitual,” Franco added, and each day he reads newspapers selected by Vatican offices in addition to L’Osservatore Romano, Corriere della Sera and “two German newspapers.” Politics is “often discussed” at the table with the Memores Domini, consecrated laywomen who have long assisted Benedict, also when he was in the apostolic palace. 

Moving on to other topics discussed, Franco said the Pope Emeritus hoped Mario Draghi, sworn in as Italy’s new technocratic Prime Minister on Feb. 13, would “succeed in resolving the crisis” that is crippling the country following COVID, adding that he is a “man who is also highly regarded in Germany.”

Regarding the virus, for which Benedict has been vaccinated, he recalled how Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of Italy’s bishops’ conference, recovered from COVID after a long battle but he had heard from the cardinal, who is “now much better.” 


Iraq: ‘A Dangerous Trip’

But when the topic turned to Francis’ March 5-8 visit to Iraq, Benedict’s “expression becomes serious, worried,” Franco wrote. Benedict said he thought it was “a very important trip,” but that “unfortunately, it comes at a very difficult time, which also makes it a dangerous trip: for security reasons and for COVID. And then there is the unstable Iraqi situation. I will accompany Francis with my prayers,” he said. 

Franco noted that Vatican police officers and members of the Swiss Guard are already in Iraq making preparations and that Italian intelligence agents have also been present there “for weeks, but it is not clear with whom they are collaborating.” 

The interview ended by Franco describing how Benedict presented Franco and his editor with souvenir of the interview: a commemorative medal and a bookmark with a photo of himself giving a blessing, both from when he was Pope. “Once again, the paradox emerges,” Franco wrote, “not only his but that of a Church unwittingly immersed in the inextricable interweaving of two papal identities.” 

As he left Benedict’s residence, Franco wrote that when Benedict “repeats in a veiled voice ‘there is only one Pope,’ he is certainly addressing the ‘fanatics’ who are not satisfied. 

“He is speaking to reassure the followers of Francis who fear the intellectual shadow of this old theologian weakened by age,” Franco concluded. “But perhaps, after eight years and with his interior voice, the Pope emeritus is unconsciously whispering it also to himself.”