The big news out of the Vatican last week was the publication of a book-length interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in which the former pontiff reflects - the first to do so, as popes almost always die in office - on his controversial eight years as pope.
In the volume, poignantly titled “The Last Conversations,” the
89-year-old Benedict told his fellow German, the journalist Peter
Seewald, that he was shocked when he was elected pope in 2005.
said that while administration was not his strong suit, “I don’t see
myself as a failure” and he took credit for breaking up a “gay lobby,”
or clique, that he said operated inside the Vatican.
But the revelation that had tongues wagging was not in the book.
Instead it came in a magazine interview with Seewald in which he said
that Benedict - who was born Joseph Ratzinger - “fell in love … in a
very serious way” as a student and struggled “very much” with the idea
of taking a vow of celibacy when he became a priest.
“He was really a very smart-looking guy, a handsome young man, an
aesthete who wrote poetry and read Hermann Hesse,” Seewald told the
German news weekly Die Zeit in a story published Thursday (Sept. 8). “A
fellow student told me he had quite an effect on women, and vice versa.
The decision to choose celibacy wasn’t easy for him.”
The news brought to mind other stories in that vein, such as the
confession by Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio - which emerged
the week after he was elected Pope Francis in 2013 - that he was
“dazzled” by a young woman he met at a relative’s wedding while he was a
young man in seminary.
“I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance … and,
well, I was bowled over for quite a while. I kept thinking and thinking
about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could
not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl
appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.”
Francis decided to continue the path to the priesthood, but said “it would be abnormal for this kind of thing not to happen.”
Similarly, one of the most affecting stories about Saint John Paul II
was about how he apparently had at least one flirtation as a young man
growing up in Poland, with the object of his attention - or he of hers -
a beautiful Jewish girl named Ginka Beer.
Earlier this year a potentially more explosive revelation emerged in
correspondence that John Paul, who died in 2005, carried on with a
married Polish-American woman over the course of their adult lives.
There was never any suggestion in the exchange that John Paul ever broke
his vow of celibacy, and the pontiff was known to have close
friendships with women and men.
But the intimacy of the letters created a frisson of scandal, as if some boundary had been crossed.
In a sense it had. Centuries ago, of course, the love lives of the
popes - and cardinals and various powerful prelates - became a source of
constant fascination and scandal, and the tales of a bed-hopping
Renaissance pontiff like Alexander VI can still make for remarkable
As if in reaction to such episodes, however, popes in following
centuries became virtual ciphers, regal monks who seemed to be
spiritually and physically in another realm, above and beyond real life.
They were encased in piety and stripped of passion, especially of the
The teaching on papal infallibility - which only pertains to solemn
declarations by the pontiff and the bishops, not the pope’s personal
conduct - was elaborated in the 19th century and added more degrees of
papal separation from the flock.
But by the middle of the last century there was also a sense that the
popes had become too remote and needed to be humanized, a development
that paralleled the Catholic Church’s broader pivot to a more open and
pastoral style - and a style that had to be modeled by more open and
pastoral, and human, popes.
Part of that “humanizing” trend was to let it be known that popes
could also fall in love - at least in an innocent way, and always in
their pre-ordination lives.
Hence the promulgation of the story that even Pope Pius XII, one of
the more aristocratic and distant figures to sit on the Throne of Saint
Peter, had a crush on a girl when he was a teenager. If she had
reciprocated his affection “there would be no Pope Pacelli today,” as
his parish priest told a reporter in St. Peter’s Square on the evening
Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope in 1939.
In these days of great anxiety in the church about the role of gays
and gay rights, leaking stories about papal crushes can also be useful
for signaling that a pope is straight, and not just straight but also
virile and seriously attractive to women, an attraction he naturally
But it’s still a balancing act - trying to advertise a pontiff’s
shared humanity with the flock while not encouraging prurient
Benedict, with his characteristically wry sense of humor, seemed to
understand that. In his first book-length interview with Seewald,
published back in 1996, the journalist asked then-Cardinal Ratzinger if
he had ever fallen in love. The future pope said demurely that he was
“touched by friendship” in that regard but “my plans never progressed as
far as a clear desire for a family.”
A year later, asked at the launch of his memoirs why the extensive
account of his youth mentioned no girlfriends, the future pope quipped:
“I had to keep the manuscript to 100 pages.”
Even if Benedict was not known as the most warm and fuzzy of popes,
he knew the trend line is clearly toward more humanity, more humor, more
“normalcy,” as they say - a trend Francis has also pushed ahead.
“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully, and has
friends like everyone else. A normal person,” as he said in a 2014
interview. “To depict the pope as a kind of superman or a star seems to
me offensive,” Francis added.
Indeed, at heart the issue is not just about whether a pope can fall
in love, or out of love, but about whether the popes as people are so
sacred as to be immune from the spiritual and even physical challenges
that afflict humanity. The more important message is that they are men,
and Christians, not religious robots.
In this latest, and apparently last, interview, the aging Benedict
said that was a central lesson he hoped people learned from his shocking
decision to retire in 2013 - the first pope in six centuries to do so.
“I think it is also clear that the pope is no superman and his mere
existence is not sufficient to conduct his role, rather he likewise
exercises a function,” Benedict said in explaining his reasons for
“If he steps down, he remains in an inner sense within the
responsibility he took on, but not in the function. In this respect one
comes to understand that the office of the pope has lost none of its
greatness, even if the humanity of the office is perhaps becoming more