Does the Catholic Church have 2 popes? Controversy is revived as Benedict aide makes stunning remarks

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI embrace during Mass at the Vatican on April 27, 2015.Reuters

A Vatican controversy was recently reignited when a long-time personal aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suggested that the papacy has been redefined and that there are now two popes in the Roman Catholic Church.

Speaking at a May 20 event at Rome's Gregorian University for the launch of a book dedicated to Benedict's pontificate, Archbishop Georg Ganswein said the papacy "remains the foundation of the Catholic Church" but that "the papal ministry is not the same as before," the Religion News Service (RNS) reports.

Benedict, Ganswein said, "left the papal throne and yet, with the step he took on February 11, 2013, he has not abandoned this [papal] ministry."

The archbishop said quitting would have been "quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005" when the conclave of cardinals elected Benedict pope.

However, Ganswein said there are "not two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry – with an active member and a contemplative member," referring to Pope Francis and Benedict, respectively.

The emeritus pope "had taken only one step to the side to make room for his successor and a new stage in the history of the papacy," he added.

Although Benedict has made it clear that Francis is the one legitimate pope, Ganswein's statements about a "transformed" papacy and an "expanded ministry" with two popes working in tandem are raising questions as they appear to challenge the Catholic Church's teaching on the supreme authority and central role of the pope, the successor of Saint Peter, according to RNS.

The controversy is not really new. Right from the moment Benedict renounced the papacy in 2013, a debate started on whether a pope could resign his post.

In his waning years, Saint John Paul II pointedly questioned Benedict's move, declaring that resigning the papacy was impossible. "Did Christ come down from the cross?" he reportedly uttered.

The latest Vatican intrigue sparked by Ganswein's statements has apparently muddled up the controversy even more.

Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and theologian at Villanova University, tweeted that Ganswein's "claims that we have two popes are clearly absurd and ridiculous."

A blogger known as Augustinus said Ganswein's speech "raises extremely sensitive, nay, disturbing questions about the very theology of the Church."

Blogger Rocco Palmo called Ganswein's model a "Papal Diarchy" — as opposed to a monarchy – an idea that was floated in the Italian media two years ago by fans of Benedict.

Ganswein said Benedict may make a major public appearance at the Vatican on June 29 to mark the 65th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. "[T]his may present an opportunity to show that Benedict XVI is well," he said.

This may also spark another round of speculation about who is really the pope, or if there are two popes, RNS states.