VATICAN CITY—The body of Pope Benedict XVI had barely been lowered into his tomb in the crypt under St. Peter’s Basilica when wild speculation started swirling. Now that Benedict, who retired in 2013, was gone, would that pave the way for Francis to be the second pope in modern history to become a papal pensioner?
But the whispers weren’t about Francis making the choice. They were about how to push him off the throne.
At the center of the alleged conspiracy to oust the sitting pope is Archbishop Georg Gänswein—once known as Gorgeous George, or George Clooney of the Catholic Church, for his unpriestly good looks. Gänswein was the Prefect of the Pontifical Household under Pope Benedict and had assumed that role would continue when Francis was elected. But a few years into his pontificate, Francis fired the archbishop, and sent him packing to the retirement monastery where Benedict spent the last ten years of his life, leaving Gänswein “shocked and speechless” over a number of decisions Francis made to undo Benedict’s legacy. .
Gänswein’s tell-all book, Nothing But The Truth – My Life Beside Benedict XVI, will hit bookstores Jan. 12. It is set to reveal what the retired pontiff really thought about Francis’ papacy and private correspondence from the retired pope to conservatives—some of which is said to be highly critical of Francis—and will likely ignite a tirade of criticism against him.
The archbishop implied that he promised Benedict he would wait until his death to publish it, although it is unclear if the former pope gave his blessing or read the manuscript—or even knew about the book. Some Vatican watchers have accused Gänswein of hijacking a period of mourning for Benedict and turning it into a war between followers of the two popes.
Father Alberto Varinelli, a priest in the northern city of Bergamo, penned an open letter to the archbishop on Tuesday, pleading with him to block the publication, saying the tell-all was “in the cross-hairs” of those who want Francis out .
“As you well know, that text is eagerly awaited by the fringes hostile to the reigning Pope and, if there are attacks on Francis, that text will do much harm to the unity of the Church,” he wrote in a letter widely distributed in Catholic circles. “If it emerges that the text is a collection of resentments and attacks, even with all the consequences that will follow it, immediately block its printing and commerce. It will be a noble act of a bishop who is on the side of the truth, without giving in to sympathies or the temptation of resentment.”
Over the weekend, an unnamed cardinal told La Stampa newspaper of a “secret plan” now in place by conservative prelates including Gänswein to put so much pressure on Francis he will have no choice but to step down.
Gänswein spent the last few years chronicling the rift between the popes past and present, who he claims had an acrimonious relationship, in part because Benedict was still considered the one true pope by traditionalist Catholics, who sought audiences with him under the shadow of the reigning pontiff “It seems as if Pope Francis doesn’t trust me anymore and is making you my chaperone,” Gänswein says he told Benedict upon his firing.
So concerned about the contents of the new tell-all book, Francis summoned Gänswein for a private audience on Monday, although the agenda of their meeting is strictly under wraps. Among the things Gänswein said after the meeting was that he must now stay quiet.
“These disclosures undermine Benedict’s oath of loyalty to Francis.“
It is a sort of Vatican palace intrigue equivalent to Prince Harry’s Spareand swings hard at Francis and, according to excerpts published in the Italian press, sides with conservatives like American cardinal Raymond Burke, whose patronage has been linked to none other than one-time Trump confidant Steve Bannon.
In his War Room podcast in the days after Benedict’s death, Bannon brought on one of the staunchest Francis critics, author Joseph Pearce, who attacked the sitting pope on a number of issues. Bannon, for the record, has called Francis “the enemy” almost since he was elected, warning populists in Europe like Italian politician Matteo Salvini that he would lead to the demise of Europe through his policies on immigration, for one.
It is no secret that Francis has had enemies in the church since his election in the 2013 conclave. His “liberal” stance, which has included welcoming gays and migrants, forgiving abortion and sex before marriage, and banning Latin mass, has been likened to heresy by many in the traditionalist corners of the church.
But his primary response to the whispers of his resignation has been to show strength. After nearly six months in a wheelchair, all of his meetings this week have shown him on his feet using a walking cane. Whether subtle or coincidental, the show of strength was not lost on Vatican watchers.
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, who co-authored a book with Francis, warned on Tuesday that the new book, and the movement it embraces, will ignite those who want another conclave.
“These disclosures undermine Benedict’s oath of loyalty to Francis, which Benedict stuck to rigorously; violate Gänswein’s duty of confidentiality to both,” Ivereigh tweeted, adding that they also “encourage those who seek wrongly to set Benedict’s legacy against Francis.”