Looking Ahead to Papal Conclave as Benedict XVI Lifts ‘Weight of the Office’

Officially in retirement, Benedict XVI leaves a papacy flagged with controversies and crises. To discuss what role the emeritus pontiff will now play in the Catholic Church and what’s ahead for the papal conclave, Jeffrey Brown talks with John Allen, reporting from Rome for CNN and National Catholic Reporter.

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    A short time ago, I talked to John Allen near St. Peter's Square. He's an analyst for CNN and a correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter.

    So, John, as we watched the pope fly away today, is his future role as emeritus pope clear? It's a new position, after all.

  • JOHN ALLEN, CNN/ The National Catholic Reporter:

    It is.

    What Benedict XVI has told us is he is going to be hidden from the world, which means that we are not going to be, publicly at any rate, hearing from him, seeing him. He's not going to hit the lecture circuit or give interviews.

    We presume he will continue to receive people in private, but the Vatican will not be issuing news bulletins about those encounters, so for all intents and purposes, he's had his swan song on the public stage. That much seems clear.

    What is less clear are two points, one, if he is going to continue to have any sort of behind-the-scenes role of the next pope, whether the next pope will seek his counsel, whether there will be conversations, and, secondly, how the role of a retired pope will play out in terms of the broader court of opinion in the church.

    One of the fears about having a retired pope has always been that it risks what in Catholic barter we talk about as schism, that is, division, that there might be one camp in the church loyal to the new pope, another camp loyal to the old one, and creating the risk of sort of internal paralysis.

    Now, the Vatican has said it has no fear of that. Certainly, one presumes Pope Benedict XVI will not be seeking that. But in terms of what the reality on the ground is going to be, I would say we simply have to wait to see how this is going to play out.


    Now, you mentioned behind the scenes. And I want to go back to that speech he made yesterday that got so much attention where he referred to the great weight of the office, the moments that weren't easy.

    Is that being read as direct references to behind-the-scenes troubles, to various scandals, and perhaps behind-the-scenes jockeying for what happens next?


    Oh, I think certainly in part it's being read that way.

    It is no secret that Benedict's papacy has been dogged by a series of meltdowns and controversies and crises from the very beginning. One can think about the 2006 speech he gave in Regensburg that ignited a firestorm of protests across the Islamic, to the cause célèbre in 2009 over the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, to the Vatileaks mess, to even in recent days sensational allegations in Roman papers of the gay lobby inside the Vatican, and of course cardinals participating in this conclave who have been linked in one way or another to the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

    All of that certainly is part of the picture. Now, I don't think that's all that Benedict meant in terms of the difficulties and the struggles and the burdens of the office. Let me put it this way. On a pope's best day, this an impossible job. We expect popes to be living saints and intellectual giants and political titans and Fortune 500 CEOs.

    But you fold into that the cumulative effect of the peculiar difficulties Benedict has faced, some of them crashing in from the outside, and some of them frankly self-inflicted, I think all of that is what he meant by the weight of the office.


    So, John, what does happen next? How much is known about the conclave, and how much is known at this point about what's going on behind the scenes in terms of jockeying for power or position?


    Well, I'm not sure jockeying is quite the right word.

    I will tell you from personal experience, having interviewed a substantial majority of the cardinals who will participate in this conclave over the years, that it is a rare cardinal who actually wants to be pope. That's in part because they take seriously that this office is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth. They have a hard time seeing themselves in that role, and also because everyone knows the papacy is a bone-crushing burden.

    If you want proof of that, look at the toll it took on John Paul II and how his final months played out. Look at the fact that Benedict XVI has frankly confessed to the world that it was simply too much for him to go on.

    That said, there certainly are tensions among the cardinals about what the core issues are facing the church and who the right man would be to lead the church forward. There are different currents, different schools of thought and the clash between those currents is playing out in ways large and small. You can see this in the interviews, for example, cardinals are giving in these days.

    Some of them are saying somewhat contrasting things. Some are talking about the need for a missionary pope who can be a salesman for the church. Others are talking about the need for a stronger governor. Some are talking about the desirability of a pope from the developing world. Others are talking about the need to make sure you have someone who can engage secularism in the West. So it's playing out in that arena.

    Even more and in a fashion that's even more frank and direct and blunt, it is playing out as cardinals gather in twos and threes and tens and 20s in various private venues in Rome to begin doing the heavy lifting of sorting out who the next pope of the Catholic Church is going to be.


    John, let me just ask you finally and briefly, if you could, you have written of Pope Benedict's mixed legacy, but I also saw you wrote today I think about how that might be impacted favorably by the way — the way he's leaving.


    Yes, I think the first draft of history on Benedict XVI is that this was a magnificent teaching pope, but a mixed bag as a business manager, obviously a controversial pope in some ways.

    The liberal wing of the Catholic Church was disappointed in many elements of this pontificate. Victims of sex abuse believe that the ball was dropped or that at least Benedict didn't finish the business of reforming the church and so on.

    But I think, in some ways, without making those substantive debates go away, his choice to resign and the very frank and honest and human way in which he explained that choice to the world in his final general audience on Wednesday has created a new, if you like, sort of optic of generosity with which people are looking at this pope.

    That is to say, they may still have their issues with the papacy, but I think the humility and the courage in many ways that he has shown in the way he is stepping off the stage has created a situation in which more people are inclined to think fondly of the pope, even if they might have objections to the papacy.


    All right, John Allen from Rome, thanks so much.


    You're welcome.


    Online, we have the step-by-step guide to electing a new pope, plus a slide show of photographs from the last days of Benedict's papacy.