One rarely leaves his monastery high on a hill in Vatican City. The other speaks freely – too freely, critics say – but has vowed silence on this matter, for now.
Two men, both clad in white, both called Holy Father, and now, both facing questions about a crucial facet of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis: What did they know, and when?
Amid the onslaught of news about the scandal, it can be easy to overlook the historical novelty and high drama of this moment in the life of the church: For the first time in 600 years, there are two living popes, one retired and one active, whose fates may be intertwined, even as many of their followers are at odds.
It has been nearly a month since a former papal diplomat published a dramatic letter asserting “homosexual networks” and widespread cover-ups within the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
The diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded that Pope Francis resign for allegedly lifting sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had placed on an American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct.
Whether those sanctions actually existed is a question that Francis and Benedict seem uniquely qualified to answer. But neither the 91-year-old German scholar, nor the 81-year-old Argentine Jesuit has said a word about them.
Supporters of both popes cast their silence in spiritual terms, forms of discipline and faith that truth will be revealed, eventually. Others say Benedict and Francis are loath to descend into a mudslinging fight with a former employee. Some wonder if more mundane strategies may be at work, too, such as self-preservation.
Meanwhile, many Catholics are clamoring for answers, anxious that the scandal, with its many troubling questions, could irreparably mar the church’s moral reputation and undermine trust in its leaders.
Since Benedict’s abdication in 2013, the two popes have taken pains to avoid awkward images or public spats.
But in the United States and beyond, Benedict is held by conservatives as a life raft in a sea of moral relativism. Francis is beloved by liberals for his reform-mindedness, focus on poverty and openness to new ideas. While many American Catholics still like Francis, his popularity has plummeted in the last year, according to a recent CNN poll.
“Maybe some people … are not very happy with Pope Francis, so they dream about” Benedict, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s current ambassador to the United States, said at an event Wednesday in New York.
“At times our feelings are overwhelming, so instead of looking at reality as it is, you know, we judge reality from our own feelings, our resentments, our disappointments. And so, we say, ‘This Pope, I don’t understand him,’ and we dream about the other.”
The sex abuse scandal has exacerbated tensions between the two camps as both fight for high moral ground. Francis and Benedict know everything they say can be twisted and used in those skirmishes, friends and advisers say, and are mindful of mistakes they’ve made in the past.
So, while their factions fight online, both popes have kept their silence about Vigano.
Theories and inter-church debates have rushed into the vacuum, to many survivors’ dismay. Clergy celibacy, homosexuality, seminary culture, even liturgy have been conscripted into left-right debates about the true source of the church’s troubles.