Few could’ve imagined the chaos that ensued after Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013: his resignation left the Roman Catholic Church with one reigning pope (Francis) and a former living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters.

There were early hints that two living popes would cause confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as pope (adding “emeritus”)—as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside the Vatican—indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would result in conflict.

Sure enough, there’s now wide polarization between supporters of Francis and Benedict—certainly beyond the intentions of both.

Two Popes, Two Parties

The present turmoil surfaced in 2019. Both popes spoke on the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but they took different positions. Francis blamed “clericalism,” an abuse of ecclesiastical power by priests and other leaders. Meanwhile, Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the 1960s following the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay he sees as lying at the root of the scandals.

Two popes, two radically different interpretations of and solutions for the corruption within their church.

More recently, a power struggle erupted between the popes. The Francis party pushed for changes in areas such as the readmission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men; the Benedict party resisted those changes, denouncing them as heresies and confusions.

It was an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church.

Perhaps the greatest insult is that there’s now a movie, The Two Popes, telling a fictional story (with some truth in it) that pokes fun at the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican.

This was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus

The latest episode in the tale of two popes happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced a forthcoming book he’s co-written with Pope Benedict. The title, From the Depths of Our Hearts, hints at the book’s emotional tone. The work is a heartfelt cry, seasoned with theological acumen, to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of priestly celibacy.

The book arose out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Francis will allow some married men to access the priesthood. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of priestly celibacy and denounce all attempts to break it—even those painted as exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Following Cardinal Sarah’s press release, there was backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book.

Unsettled Tension

One of the pope’s key roles is to maintain the balance between the Roman and Catholic dimensions. There’s the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramid leadership structure, binding teaching, and the rigidity of canon law. And there’s the Catholic side, which emphasizes a universal outlook, an absorption of ideas and cultures, and the inclusive embrace of cultural practices into the Catholic whole. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, even amid disruptions and tensions.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Each pope does it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was both Roman and Catholic. He strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching, but was second to none in promoting the universality of the church around the world (e.g., inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally).

The tension between the ‘Roman’ Benedict and the ‘Catholic’ Francis helps explain the present-day crisis.

Benedict XVI swung the pendulum to the Roman pole with his staunch conservatism in areas such as liturgy, morality, and the relationship with the secular world. To many Benedict appeared more Roman than Catholic—rigid, centripetal, and doctrinaire.

This helps explain why someone like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to swing in the opposite direction to recover a balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g., his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a decidedly Catholic pope. He’s perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics. 

Struggle to Regain Balance

Admitting divorced members to the Eucharist, fudging on traditional opposition to homosexuality, and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the pope’s latest (and dangerous) “Catholic” moves that run contrary to the Roman tradition.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a pope emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis.

If this situation remains unresolved, it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted through the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counterbalanced by the “traditional” pope, and the system will be disrupted. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system in the manner of an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands.

If this situation remains unresolved . . . it will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands.

In the long run, this tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable. It’s likely that “pope emeritus” status will be revisited and regulated to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in this ongoing confrontation between a Roman party and a Catholic one.

The tale of two popes cannot last long, for Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system must keep together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing catholicity. But this internal chaos will continue until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.