Conspiracy Theories: Why Did the Pope Really Quit?

Whispers of late-night helicopter trips to the hospital and another sex scandal have Rome buzzing.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

Now that the shock of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation has settled in, conspiracy theorists are having a heyday trying to figure out if there is more to the story than meets the eye. With no papal funeral to prepare for and the pope’s final appearances fairly routine, Vatican watchers and bored reporters have been fleshing out a number of theories on why the pope may have really resigned.

While the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal was obviously a huge weight on the pope’s shoulders, Vatican watchers say it was actually the VatiLeaks butler saga and allegations of impropriety at the Vatican Bank that played more important roles in his resignation. “Benedict may not have quit because of the pedophilia scandals or any other specific controversy,” says Vatican expert John Allen. “But it's hard to believe they didn’t play a role, at least as background.”

There are also rampant rumors that the pope’s health is far worse than anyone realizes. Whispers of late-night helicopter trips to emergency rooms and hints that he is suffering some terminal illness like leukemia pushed forward by Italian gossip site Dagospia are unconfirmed, but still won’t go away. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi begins each press briefing with a list of untruths he has read in the press, effectively spinning the stories back under Vatican control.

The pope has had a lot of health problems, to be sure, but, at least according to the official word, none of them are “relevant” to his resignation. Earlier this week Lombardi told reporters that the pope had a pacemaker installed last year, which had been changed about three months ago. This fueled even more rumors that the pope had a worsening heart condition, yet the Vatican said it hadn’t played any role in slowing him down.

Then on Thursday, Lombardi confirmed that the pope hit his head on a fall during his papal visit to Mexico last March. Again, this apparently had no bearing in his resignation, even though earlier Lombardi had hinted that the pope took the decision to resign after that papal trip. La Stampa, a newspaper, reported that while in Mexico, the pope hit his head on a bathroom sink hard enough to break the skin, and that his hair and pillow were stained with his blood. No one outside his inner circle had been made aware, because the cut could be hidden under his skullcap.

Beyond the gossip about why the pope might have really resigned are growing conspiracies that there is a faction of cardinals who don’t think the pope should live inside Vatican City after he retires. Several unnamed cardinals have been quoted in the Italian press saying that it would have been better if he returned to Bavaria in Germany or lived out his days somewhere like Monte Cassino, a hilltop abbey south of Rome. Asked if the pope consulted a group of cardinals about where to live after he retires, Lombardi said that he didn’t have to. “The successor and cardinals will be very happy to have nearby a person who more than anyone understands the spiritual needs of the church and his successor.”

But many Vatican experts in Rome have been writing that whether the former pope should stay will actually be up to the new pope. After all, he will have full charge of all the affairs inside Vatican City. Archbishop Rino Fisichella told Corriere della Sera that he thought the pope should “rethink his plans” even before that, saying that having two popes inside Vatican City can only lead to trouble. Citing a potential “cohabitation issue” Fisichella says that he believes the pope will eventually choose to move out.

Whether any of the rumors will prove true is anyone’s guess. But with little happening beyond cardinals lobbying for the pope’s old job from now until the conclave begins sometime after March 15, there is no question that the rumor mill will keep churning.