Nosy Neighbor

Benedict Could Be a Backseat Pope

He likes cats, playing the piano, and praying. But will a retired Benedict XVI really be able to stay out of his successor’s hair?

02.12.13 3:50 PM ET

You know what it’s like when someone takes over your old job—especially if you stay in the same company? It’s tough not to look over your successor’s shoulder and offer unwanted advice. Now imagine the new guy has taken over your direct line to God.

When Pope Benedict XVI retires on February 28, he will be the first pontiff in 600 years to leave his post by choice. His predecessors have almost all died of natural causes, leaving their legacies for others to shape. (In some cases they were murdered, like Gregory V, who was poisoned, and the first pope, St. Peter, who was crucified.) But Benedict is sticking around. The question, then, is just how visible he’ll remain.

The Vatican has already said he will not be involved in electing his predecessor; sometime after his last day Benedict will head to the papal resort of Castel Gandolfo in the Roman foothills to wait out the conclave, seen as a sign that he doesn’t want to be involved in the short term.

“The pope is a discreet person,” said papal spokesman Federico Lombardi on Tuesday. “He will not interfere in any way in the process of the election.”

After that, the pope has said he will live out his final days in contemplative prayer—but he won’t be cloistered and will be able to do as he pleases. In fact, Lombardi has already said he hoped the soon-to-be-former pope would continue writing guiding texts on theology. And it may be tempting for the ex-pontiff to meddle. After all, he will be living just a stone’s throw from the papal apartments, in a once-cloistered monastery inside the Vatican City walls. He has several hobbies, like playing piano, and he’s a cat lover, but after leading the world’s 1 billion Catholics for nearly eight years, music and felines may not be enough to occupy all of his time.

It’s unlikely Benedict will return to pre-papal life, and no one expects to see him wandering among the crowds in St. Peter’s Square or taking a walk through Rome’s cobbled streets. He won’t have an official role in the church, but he brings a considerable amount of experience in Vatican affairs to the table, which might be hard to keep to himself. He is an unrivaled expert on Catholic theology and a prolific writer and interpreter of church doctrine, a skill he honed as the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He’s also fluent in Latin—something his successor might need some tutoring in. In fact, when Benedict made his resignation announcement to a group of cardinals in Latin, very few understood what he meant.

(But at least they were better than the press corps. Only one reporter, Giovanna Chirri from the Italian news agency ANSA, knew enough Latin to break the news without waiting for the Vatican’s official translation into Italian.)

So it remains to be seen if Benedict will play any covert role in the way the church moves forward. If an African pope is elected and chooses to address condom use to fight AIDS, for example, will Benedict XVI keep his lip zipped after being so vocal against the practice during his own papacy? Or will Benedict, who has been especially hard on homosexual relationships, birth control, and the role of women in the church, find it hard to keep quiet if the new pope seeks to soften the church’s stance on any of his pet causes? Many times in his papacy, he has referred to the spiritual guidance of his predecessor Pope John Paul II. But once he’s rested up, will his door be open for the new pope to pop in and ask advice directly? Apparently not, says his spokesman, at least that’s not the plan for now. “If the pope wanted to stay directly involved in the day-to-day business, he wouldn’t be resigning,” said Lombardi.

Meanwhile, because there has been no retired pope in modern times, the Vatican has been scrambling to interpret the apostolic constitution to see if the same rules that apply when popes die as apply when they step down. The resignation is addressed in the new Canon Law Code under article 332, which states the resignation must be made freely and that it must be properly carried out—thought to mean there must be ample reflection and notice before leaving office. But there are still a number of issues Canon Law does not address. “None of the plans for what’s next are definitive,” said Lombardi, implying that things are still very much in flux as the pope finishes out his tenure.

Among the many snags is what to call him (the artist formerly known as pope?) and what to do with his official ring, seal, and other personal effects. While there won’t likely be a fire sale on Pope Benedict XVI letterheads or monogrammed vestments, there will be some items that the pope can’t take with him into retirement. Some will be destroyed, keeping in line with tradition. For example, when a pope passes away, his ring, which carries his seal, along with other crested items, are crushed to destroy the seals. Lombardi said he wasn’t sure yet what would happen to everything, but because Benedict would no longer be acting as pope, the ring and seal would likely be terminated as usual. “Objects strictly tied to the ministry of St. Peter must be destroyed,” Lombardi said. “But we are studying the proper etiquette involved when the pope is still alive.”

For now, though, the pope has a lot to keep him occupied. He will be on a planned Lenten retreat next week, and then he intends to finish out his appointments with various heads of state and dignitaries before a final farewell audience on February 27 in St. Peter’s Square. He will then work a full day on February 28, leaving his office for the last time at 8 p.m.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess when he will make another public appearance—or what having a retired pope actually means.