Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had been dead for just two days when it was revealed that his personal secretary, a striking and influential cleric nicknamed “Gorgeous Georg” by the international press, was publishing a tell-all book that promised to avenge his former boss—and lambast the current pope.
The news came as a shock in the world of Vatican observers. In part, that was because it arrived as the faithful were still, literally, mourning the pontiff at the center of it all. Also because the author, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has worked as a high-ranking employee for both Francis and Benedict and is situated in a particularly sensitive position in the church.
“This is unprecedented,” Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and church historian at Villanova University, told me over the phone. “The shocking part is it’s the secretary of the former pope who’s raising very serious accusations against the current pope, who’s been very patient with him. At the very minimum, it’s very bad taste.”
Gänswein’s book, Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI, will be published later this month by an imprint of Italian publishing house Mondadori. According to the AP, the book promises to set right misunderstandings about Benedict’s pontificate and the workings of the Vatican. “Today, after the death of the pope emeritus, the time has come for the current prefect of the papal household to tell his own truth about the blatant calumnies and dark maneuvers that have tried in vain to cast shadows on the German pontiff’s magisterium and actions,” a press release for the book read.
This is highly dramatic and entirely unprecedented. But still, it isn’t entirely surprising.
In the Catholic world, Francis and Benedict are often seen as two opposing figureheads, even as both popes remained outwardly on good terms and protested any idea that they were in opposition to each other. To many supporters of Benedict—of which Gänswein was, undoubtedly, among the most devoted—Francis, a more liberal pope, represented a watered-down version of Catholicism that spread confusion and moral relativism. Some extreme Francis critics continued to think of the theologically conservative Benedict as the true pope.
While Benedict was alive, his most fervent supporters were respectful of his wishes for a show of unity. But now that he has died, it may be that some conservatives feel freer to rally around the idea of Benedict, without worrying about any complicating realities.
“There’s a real postmortem legacy of Benedict XIV that can be galvanized by people like Gänswein,” said David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. “They were already energized. But for some, it frees them up to do things that Benedict would not have approved of.”
“He Has Chosen the Path of Confrontation”
The 66-year-old Gänswein cuts a glamorous figure among the Roman curia. He skis, flies airplanes, and speaks six languages, including Latin. In his earlier years in Rome, Italian tabloids ran photos of him playing tennis and dubbed him “beautiful George.” Others called him “the George Clooney of the Vatican.” Donatella Versace used Gänswein as inspiration for a 2007 fashion show. In 2013, the Italian Vanity Fair ran a photo of Gänswein on its cover (without his permission), with the tag, “It’s not a sin to be beautiful.”
Gänswein had been a behind-the-scenes conservative power player for years, but when Cardinal Ratzinger became pope in 2005, Gänswein became one of the most powerful supporting characters in the church. (He had previously served as Ratzinger’s private secretary.) Two months before Benedict resigned, Gänswein was also made prefect of the papal household, a role he continued into Francis’ papacy. This meant he held important roles in the lives of both Francis and Benedict, even as it was known he was fully theologically aligned with Benedict—and opposed to Francis’ approach.
“That situation was awkward enough for anyone,” Faggioli said. “Half of the day, Gänswein was supposed to show up with Francis in public audiences and public events. And the rest of the day, he was working with the former pope. Which is not bad, but what he understood as part of his work for the former pope was to create a certain circle of journalists and personalities that sometimes resulted in statements, books, and interviews that I’m not sure Ratzinger was completely aware of.”
As Benedict aged, some speculated that Gänswein’s influence was growing. The two were rarely apart, praying, dining, and strolling the Vatican grounds together. (In his retirement, Benedict lived in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.) Gänswein was responsible for Benedict’s daily schedule, communications, and private and personal audiences. So when the pope emeritus stirred up controversy, outside observers naturally speculated about how much Gänswein was to blame.
“Benedict said he would be hidden from the world during his retirement, but he wasn’t that hidden,” Gibson said. “He continued to write, to send letters. But how much of that was Gänswein? Especially in the last couple years. It’s hard to tell how much of that was Gänswein pulling the strings.”
In January 2020, a French newspaper published excerpts of an upcoming book that Benedict had co-authored with the conservative dissident Cardinal Robert Sarah that defended the idea of priestly celibacy. This outraged Francis supporters because it came at a time when Francis was considering allowing a relaxation of celibacy requirements in the Amazon, where there is a shortage of priests. The publication appeared to amount to a former pope undermining the current leader of the church.
Almost immediately, Gänswein declared that there had been a misunderstanding, that the pope emeritus had not known he would be listed as a co-author, and that he had only intended to contribute an essay. He asked Sarah to remove Benedict’s name from the book. (Sarah has maintained Benedict knew he would be co-author. Despite the protests, several publishers kept Benedict as a co-author.) But observers also noted that Gänswein seemed to be a central figure in this scandal. Gänswein disappeared, noticeably, from public view for some time. In February 2020, the Vatican “redistributed” Gänswein’s duties, effectively sidelining him.
To Faggioli, it seems that Gänswein’s new book is likely an attempt to hold on to some of the power he lost in the last years of Francis’ papacy. Gänswein is still, formally, the prefect of the papal household. But most private secretaries of popes go on to live quiet lives away from Rome after their pontiff’s death in order to give space to the new papacy. “So what’s happening is Gänswein is trying to create some leverage to raise the stakes and to make it clear that he’s not going away quietly,” Faggioli said. “He has chosen the path of confrontation with Pope Francis until the end.”
Gibson guessed that as the Vatican was looking for a place to “park” Gänswein after Benedict’s death, Gänswein was busy making his own escape plan. “There are a number of retired bishops and cardinals who are busy creating their own brands,” he said. He named as examples the American Cardinal Raymond Burke—the leading voice of the Francis opposition—and Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who recently called for three days of fasting for the Jan. 6 defendants. These men have gathered power in the church, appearing often in conservative Catholic media, headlining profitable speaking events, and dining with wealthy and powerful conservatives in the U.S.
Gibson predicted that Gänswein’s book would amount to a “manifesto for the right” and for Benedict’s conservative supporters. “All these retired church men are busy creating their own platforms and their own brands, and that’s what it looks like Gänswein is doing,” Gibson said.
“He’s Going to Defend His Man”
Shortly before Benedict’s death, Gänswein said in an interview with German media that he thought Francis’ restrictions on the Latin Mass “hit” Benedict “very hard.” This statement seemed intended to work up the Latin Mass traditionalists, a very loud and political contingent in the church who feel deeply aggrieved by Pope Francis’ attempt to crack down on the reactionaries in their midst. For context: In 2021, Francis issued Traditionis Custodes, a declaration that the church would heavily restrict the celebration of the Latin Mass, an uncommon rite that, because of its association with pre-modern worship, has for some decades served as a symbolic rallying point for radical traditionalists. Given that the Latin Mass itself is not controversial, and given that the restrictions were clearly an attempt to subdue the right-wing contingent, the announcement caused a firestorm in the church.
In the interview, Gänswein said, of the change Francis made: “I think it broke Pope Benedict’s heart.”
“There’s obviously been a certain amount of disagreement between the policies of Benedict while he was pope and Pope Francis while he was pope, and no one ever was given the opportunity to talk to Benedict about what that was like, to have key policies of yours revoked,” said Michael Heinlein, the editor of Simply Catholic. “So I think there’s a great amount of interest” in Gänswein’s opinion.
“People are often interested in these figures, because they know where all the bodies are buried,” Heinlein said, of Gänswein. “It seems to be a pretty big deal, because Benedict was really so silent.”
In other words, Gänswein’s book has all the makings of a bestseller. But we shouldn’t necessarily believe that was his reasoning for writing it.
Gänswein was deeply, deeply loyal to Benedict. Francis’ predecessor weathered a number of tumultuous episodes, including the Vatileaks scandals, and his legacy as a pope is still being settled. Gänswein has described Benedict as a father figure and wept openly as Benedict resigned. He may see himself as being able to scrap in Vatican politics in a way Benedict couldn’t, and may see himself as the right person to come to the former pope’s defense.
“I think part of it is passion,” Gibson said. “To Benedict, and to what [Gänswein] sees as Benedict’s vision of the church. This is what he’s dedicated his life to. So let’s assume he’s a true believer. He’s being incredibly divisive. But Benedict took a lot of flak, and he’s going to defend his man.”
Correction, Jan. 6, 2023: This post originally misidentified the former Pope Benedict XVI as Benedict XIV.