R.I.P. Pope Benedict XVI, author of 2019 "Porno on Airplanes" letter
Honey, this throne of Peter isn't big enough for the two of us.
In the early 2010s, I was starting out in my career and working in this big corporate office in Los Angeles; I was a low-level sales grunt, but I was loud (in an annoying way) and very outgoing (also in an annoying way) so a lot of people in the office knew who I was, and there are two days I remember specifically when world-historical events happened and a whole bunch of my coworkers walked over to my desk to ask me to explain what was happening in the world, thinking I had some specific expertise in these areas. The first day, of course, was when Arcade Fire won Album Of The Year for The Suburbs and a parade of brand managers who had to stay on top of trends kept coming to me going "Tony, who is this 'Arcade Fire' fellow?". The second day was when the Pope resigned.
On the last day of 2022, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died. The obituaries are still coming out - here is a pretty standard one from NPR - but you can see some common threads between them already. The obits all seem to agree that Benedict was an academic theologian and a writer, and obviously a very talented and accomplished one. The obits also all seem to agree that the skills that made Benedict good at those things do not appear to have translated very well to the papacy of the 2000s and early 2010s. Nobody in any media outlet has questioned whether Benedict was, we’ll say, trying very hard to be good at his job, but also nobody in any media outlet is denying that Benedict, as Pope, screwed up a lot. Specifically, he was very bad at navigating a media environment that had changed at an epochal level since the election of his predecessor in the late seventies. He wasn't more conservative than his predecessor, and I honestly don’t think he’s much more theologically conservative than his successor; if Francis has said something during his papacy that you liked, there's a good chance Benedict also wrote a very similar thing down during his own papacy (and conversely if Benedict wrote down something you liked, there's a good chance Francis said something very similar). But a casual observer would never know that because Benedict, while Pope, kept stepping on metaphorical rakes and wrecking his own image (and by extension, the image of the church) globally. It is not hard to find examples.
When Benedict lifted excommunication on a group of ultra-conservative bishops in 2009, he neglected to check whether one of them, Richard Williamson, had already crossed the line from "ultra-conservative" into "very loudly and publicly denying that the Holocaust happened". I don't think that Benedict - who [clears throat and tries to get through this next part very quickly] was a literal Nazi soldier in 1943, although he did eventually desert so I'm willing to give him partial credit - wanted to actually promote Holocaust denial, but this was a laughably preventable structural failure from the Vatican - Benedict’s term was “unforeseen mishap” - and when you're the Pope, structural failures from the Vatican also count as personal failures from you. If you're willing to give Benedict a pass because he only publicly offended one major Abrahamic world religion causing reverberating outrage for weeks afterwards, I have some bad news. In a 2006 lecture, Benedict (favorably) quoted a 14th-century monarch’s feelings on Islam, saying "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman," which was not well-received by the global Muslim community, and Benedict had to make a visit to pray at a mosque in Istanbul in order to try and patch things up.
Add to this the still-growing clerical abuse crisis, a calcified bureaucracy at the Vatican that was going to actively resist any real reforms, and repeated rhetorical missteps when talking about things like “how people get AIDS” or “whether gay people deserved to be treated like human beings”, and you end up with a guy who was, ultimately, not very good at the job. When his job was “writing theology”, he was good at that, but when the job became “writing theology AND being a head of state AND overseeing hundreds of employees AND giving public statements to the media AND managing the church's image AND being a model of pastoral ministry for clergy across the world,” he ran up against the limits of his abilities pretty quickly. But Benedict still did do something pretty remarkable, something which will end up defining his legacy in the history of Catholicism: he quit his job because he didn’t think he could do it well anymore.
We probably won’t understand the full impact of this in our lifetimes; when those people came to my cubicle to ask me what it means when the Pope resigns, I had to answer “I have no idea, this isn’t the kind of thing that really happens very often”. Given that the hierarchical structure of our church is basically built around the principle of “only we can do this, thank you very much”, to have the man at the top say “maybe it’s time for someone else to do this” was pretty stunning, especially considering how many clergy in the Catholic church don't resign when they do way worse things than Benedict did. Power matters: Benedict had tremendous power, and he gave it up. He showed the church that power was something that could be given up. Very few people do that, ever, in any context. The resignation, perhaps, shows a path forward to a different power structure based on responsibility and humility instead of dominance and moral scolding; considering how easy it is for us to find clergy that screw up, and do terrible things, and double down, and keep getting worse, a model of someone relinquishing their clerical power is something that could fundamentally change the church. Benedict’s resignation also created the interesting question of what a "post-papacy" would look like. But Benedict, as it turns out, also screwed this up.
The “porno on airplanes” letter - which is my term and not the Vatican’s - remains the most bizarre piece of papal writing I’ve ever read. It clocks in at 5,500 words, the length of a full Sun Kil Moon album, and Benedict wrote it for a German magazine in spring 2019, although in the states EWTN eventually picked up and ran with the letter exactly as you would expect them to, in response to the church’s global sex abuse crisis peaking once again. The retired Pope Benedict applied his famously sharp intellect to this vast, complex, decades-long problem in the church to find the true cause, and arrived at what, in retrospect, probably strikes you as a very self-evident answer: the scandal is definitely related to all the pornos we used to show on airplanes.
I’m oversimplifying, but only slightly. Benedict’s thesis was that the social changes of the late 1960s, notably the sexual revolution, led to the long-term normalization of pedophilia (?), and because the Vatican II council had destroyed the church’s ability to properly condemn pedophilia (?), we just ended up with all of these pedophiles everywhere. That there was also an institutional church trying to cover up abuse everywhere those cases surfaced does not appear to have entered into Benedict's analysis. People in the sixties wanted more pedophilia in society (?), so they lost their minds; as the man that Catholics consider one of the smartest theologians of the contemporary era put it, “the mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers," a very memorable line which I've presented here with about as much context as Benedict provided his original audience, and which is quoted in every single media recap of the letter.
I’m not sure what the in-flight entertainment was on Benedict’s usual Lufthansa routes, but Benedict’s letter was met by the global community of academic theologians with a near-unanimous “the fuck are you doing?” Every attempt to justify any part of his reasoning falls flat: sexual abuse, including clergy sexual abuse, was not invented in the 1960s. One of the people at the Vatican who had the most power to stop sexual abuse during the era Benedict described was Benedict himself when he was a Cardinal at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The structural failures of the church that led to these scandals were almost all part of the public record by this point. Blaming things on the secularization of the culture doesn’t explain why priests were the ones breaking the rules, and this entire approach seems to absolve the church of any wrongdoing on their end and put the blame on us. And what the hell are these pornos on airplanes?
More importantly, why are you talking at all? Benedict had actually spent most of his post-papacy living a quiet life and avoiding any public statements; that he felt the need to speak up with this is still bewildering today. There are several possible explanations for how this letter ended up getting written and published, none of them are good, and all of them point to fundamental flaws in the church's hierarchical structure. That’s why I think the porno on airplanes letter is so important for understanding Benedict’s legacy, and why I am endlessly fascinated by it. Its existence provides a strong counter to arguments for the church's hierarchical and paternal structure, and then when you think you've outwitted the letter and effectively explained how it could come from a church that is not horribly broken, you realize that your explanation has put you in an even worse place. Explaining the existence of this letter feels like you're trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, but as a toddler, or possibly a dacshund.
The first possible explanation for the letter is that Benedict wrote and published the letter because he actually believed these things and felt that the world needed to hear them. If that’s the explanation, this is very bad. It means that a man who was once an intellectual luminary of the church and an important leader of one its most important organizations - literally, the guy who ran the organization that oversaw abuse investigations before becoming Pope - had descended into repeating crappy talking points about how liberalism was destroying society and turning everyone into sex criminals, and somehow doing it in a way that made even less sense than usual. It means that nobody, no matter how smart or how good, is immune from having their mind poisoned by right-wing garbage media. It means we can't have one person run the church, and we definitely can't have him serve for life with no oversight.
The second possible explanation is that Benedict didn’t actually believe any of this, but was working to undermine Pope Francis, who was, at the time, convening the bishops to figure out concrete ways to stem the abuse crisis. This is also very bad. It means that a guy can retire from being Pope but still try to pull the rug out from under the next Pope, which suggests that Benedict never really gave up power to begin with, which suggests that there is not actually a good path forward to a different power structure based on responsibility and humility instead of dominance and moral scolding, which in turn suggests that the church is in a lot of trouble if the wrong people end up (or are already) at the highest levels of power.
The third possible explanation is that Benedict didn’t actually believe any of this, but was an old man who was losing his bearings and rambling his way through a dementia-stained magazine essay (everyone close to Benedict maintains that he remained lucid throughout his retirement, so I don’t really think this is the most likely explanation for what happened). If that is the explanation, it is also very bad. It means that Catholic media outlets are happy to reprint the mutterings of a doddering old man if it advances their narrative for how the church is too liberal nowadays (which, to be clear, is exactly the thing I would expect EWTN to do and basically what they do every day), and that the doddering old man in question, even if he’s not Pope anymore, can easily get access to a loud media microphone. It means that our media is fundamentally broken, and the message of the church is vulnerable to the hazards of old age, even when the Pope is willing to step down.
The fourth possible explanation - one that I saw a lot of when the letter came out - is that Benedict didn’t actually believe any of this, but there were people around Benedict who had their own agenda and wrote and published the letter in his name without him really being aware of what was going on. This is also very bad, it’s probably the worst possible scenario. It means that the hierarchical structure of the church didn't really exist in the first place, and whatever oversight we think we have is made up, and the papacy and what it stands for doesn’t really matter because there are Just Some Guys you've never heard of that are actually running things. It means that whenever the Pope writes or says something, you don't know if he actually means it.
No matter what reason you pick for the letter, it's bad. Something is broken in the papacy and you can take your pick as to what it is. More pieces will come out in Catholic media this week praising Benedict's brilliance and humility, and I personally still think his resignation was monumental, but any remembrance of him is still going to get slapped by reality: he still made very obvious, very public, and very bad decisions on how to use his power, and they were decisions he could have made differently, and they were decisions that revealed how much still needs to change in order for the papacy to work better for the church. He could have had anyone do a Google search on Richard Williamson before welcoming him back into the church, but he didn't think it was necessary, and then he wondered why people kept bringing up the Nazi thing. He could have taken five seconds to think “how are people going to take this?” before saying that condoms cause AIDS, but he was fine leading a church that was sabotaging its relationships with public health agencies and appearing horribly out-of-touch with the crises in the world. He could have sat out the latest wave of the church's abuse crisis, but he thought the world neared to hear about the airplane porn (or he didn’t think that, or other people who were pretending to be him thought it, but no matter how you slice it, it’s very bad). And there was one other thing he could have done differently, at the very end of his life.
In early 2021, an independent review of clerical sexual abuse across dioceses in Germany faulted Benedict (then archbishop Josef Ratzinger) for his handling of abuse cases when he was running the archdiocese of Munich in the seventies. When this information came out, Benedict had long since retired and withdrawn from public life. There was no real possibility that he was going to face any kind of consequences for mishandling abuse cases. He was near the end of his life as it was. But it presented an interesting opportunity: would Benedict actually admit that he had made wrong decisions, used his power the wrong way, as archbishop of Munich? He could do it, without any real personal risk to himself. Would he admit any wrongdoing in his response letter where he noted that "quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life"? Any atonement here would have been symbolic at best, but it would have been something, it would have been a once-very-powerful man trying to do something right by the victims of abuse, in a way that didn’t cost him very much at all. But Benedict chose to release his letter along with a statement from his attorneys clarifying that actually, he never did anything wrong despite what the extensive investigation said. Because he changed a lot when he resigned, but he had no interest in changing the standard church response to 8,000 pages of evidence that a person had mishandled abuse cases.
There’s a remembrance of Benedict by Pedro Gabriel at Where Peter Is that takes a very different approach than I just did. To Gabriel, Benedict was basically always in the right, he was just targeted by an unforgiving media landscape because he was brave enough to be a truth-teller:
“Kassandra’s story taught me a terrible lesson: he who speaks truth in a fallen world is cursed to not be believed…others began to twist [Benedict’s] every word to paint him as something he was not: the “Panzer Cardinal,” the Grand Inquisitor, the former Nazi…It was a media cabal, pure and simple. Just like today, with the media cabal against Pope Francis, Benedict was subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Every single word or action was portrayed in the worst possible light and used to validate a prejudiced image of the pontiff. They painted an image of someone who should be rejected by anyone with a modicum of sense. Whether the media did it due to invincible ignorance, from ideologically-driven intellectual dishonesty, or to construct a compelling and sensational narrative, the damage was done. Benedict’s message was largely unheard, as Kassandra’s curse demand.”
Gabriel is correct that the media was very tough on Benedict. That’s because the media doesn’t generally decide to go easy on people who wield tremendous power over a billion-and-some Catholics worldwide including employees and teachers and priests and abuse investigations and international aid. It's fair game for the media to call someone a “former Nazi” when the guy once wore a uniform and carried a gun for Hitler. It's fair game to call him “The Grand Inquisitor” because he spent decades as the prefect at CDF, which is the church organization that used to be the literal Inquisition, and that, under Benedict, worked very hard to chastise academics and theologians for not being sufficiently orthodox. It's fair game to present him as out of touch when one of his last pieces of writing rambled on about the sixties and the decade everyone wanted to be a pedophile. Those weren’t invented by the media out of thin air. It's fair game for Benedict to try and provide a counter-narrative, too, but he couldn't because he kept screwing up; a former Nazi turning good and becoming Pope is a compelling narrative, but a tough one to sell when, say, decades later, you don't appear to care very much about Holocaust denial. It was incumbent upon Benedict and the Vatican to figure out how to navigate the media landscape effectively, and they did not succeed. And the media did not suddenly decide to go easier on Francis because they thought he was more liberal; rather, Francis put better people in place to actually figure out how to navigate the media (and then plenty of media still don’t like the guy anyways).
And Benedict’s screwups that I listed above are not the fabrications of a media conspiracy: Benedict really did piss off the global Muslim community by dropping an inflammatory quote into his speech, and he really did piss off the global Jewish community because he couldn’t bother to do a background check on an excommunicated bishop, and he really did write the porno on airplanes letter, really did think “this is good that I’m writing this”, and really did submit it for publication. It was bad for the church, and for its ability to work effectively in the world, when Benedict made these decisions, and he could have made them differently. He wasn't a truth-teller when he wrote the porno on airplanes letter; he was either an idiot, an asshole, a senile old man, or an impostor, and none of those work with the narrative of a man who was just too brave for the media. And then, Benedict really did have an opportunity to make one last symbolic effort to do something for abuse victims, but instead ended his life caught looking at a moral strikeout.
Power matters: Benedict had tremendous power, and he eventually gave it up. And that resignation could have been his real legacy after his numerous screwups as Pope, but he was apparently determined to keep screwing up in retirement, which means his legacy has to be more than just the resignation, it has to be about screwing up and how we keep Popes from screwing up in the future. It's part of the reason why Benedict’s predecessor is now picking up the pace on reforming the structures in the Curia and developing a new pipeline of bishops forcing the church to very deliberately listen to the laity. Maybe something good will come of all of that; I have no idea, this isn’t the kind of thing that really happens very often. All I can be sure about now is that Benedict is on the airplane to the afterlife, and that the in-flight movies are probably pretty wild.