The Pope Benedict Conspiracy Theories

Two years into his retirement, the former pontiff still faces questions about why he left the Vatican.

For someone once bestowed with the luxury of infallibility, former Pope Benedict XVI is having a unique retirement. Two years after his unprecedented withdrawal from the papacy—well, unprecedented for the last 600 years at least—the erstwhile Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's resignation remains the subject of speculation.

Two years ago this week, Benedict's announcement that he was stepping down for health reasons shocked the Catholic Church and much of the world. It also loosed conspiracy theorists who believe Benedict was forced to resign. On Wednesday, one of the former pope's top lieutenants defended the 87-year-old's  choice.

"Benedict XVI is convinced that the decision that he took and communicated was right," Monsignor Georg Gaenswein told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. "He has no doubts."

The statement, when read closely, could be meaningful for two reasons. That a surrogate of Benedict is still out protecting the pope emeritus in the press might speak to an inherent defensiveness (though a reporter's questions could easily have prompted it). Then, there is the theory of his "forced resignation," which would invalidate the election of Pope Francis. "Church law says a pope's resignation is valid only if he takes the decision in full freedom and without pressure from others," Reuters noted last year.

The circumstances surrounding Benedict's decision to step down have titillated scholars and the journalists alike, especially given the fact that his resignation came not long after the "Vatileaks" scandal. The release of internal Vatican memos, by some accounts, revealed how Benedict's efforts to reform the church, like provide transparency on the global sex abuse scandal and the management of the Vatican bank, were undercut by internal politics. Writing in The Washington Post in 2013, Jason Horowitz summed up how the leaks might affect Benedict's legacy:

"It showed how Benedict, a weak manager who may most be remembered for the way in which he left office, was no match for a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency and preferred a damage-control campaign that diverted attention from the institution’s fundamental problems."

Some of the talk that Benedict was forced out starts there. In the Italian media, as Reuters relayed, the leak itself was portrayed as proof that "that a faction of prelates who wanted to discredit Benedict and pressure him to resign was behind the leaks." Writing for The Atlantic, Paul Elie noted that Benedict still wears white—"the papal vestments sans cape and sash"—which others have taken as a signal that the pope emeritus still feels a bit like the pontiff. And last month, according to the AP, a retired Kazakh archbishop joined the chorus of those who say Benedict didn't choose to go.

In a letter to Vatican Insider last year, one of Benedict's only public statements since his resignation, he stressed again that there "is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation." Doth he protest too much?