First, an apology is in order. When we launched this site, one of our stated intentions was to let stories unfold in their entirety before posting our commentary. When the original story of Benedict’s letter was published, I jumped the gun and posted my analysis of the contents that were publicly available as part of my five-year tribute to Francis’s papacy.
The following day, more details were revealed, from a previously unpublished third paragraph, as well as confirmation that two lines of text on the promotional photograph of the books and letter were deliberately blurred. I updated my original post and wrote a second post, speculating on what may have happened, based on my experience with the publishing industry and Church bureaucracy.
Finally, on Saturday, the letter was revealed in its entirety. I am posting on this issue again because at this point we owe it to our readers to make sure they have the full story. I apologize for providing my full analysis incrementally, rather than waiting for the entire story to unfold.
This is the full text, as translated by Edward Pentin:
Most Reverend Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò
Prefect of the Secretariat for Communications
February 7, 2018
Most Reverend Monsignor,
Thank you for your kind letter of 12 January and the attached gift of the eleven small volumes edited by Roberto Repole.
I applaud this initiative that wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation, while I have been only a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today.
The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament.
However, I don’t feel like writing a short and dense theological passage on them because throughout my life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books I had read really well. Unfortunately, if only for physical reasons, I am unable to read the eleven volumes in the near future, especially as other commitments await me that I have already made.
Only as an aside, I would like to note my surprise at the fact that among the authors is also Professor Hünermann, who during my pontificate had distinguished himself by leading anti-papal initiatives. He played a major part in the release of the “Kölner Erklärung”, which, in relation to the encyclical “Veritatis splendour”, virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope, especially on questions of moral theology. Also the “Europaische Theologengesellschaft”, which he founded, was initially conceived by him as an organization in opposition to the papal magisterium. Later, the ecclesial sentiment of many theologians prevented this orientation, allowing that organization to become a normal instrument of encounter among theologians.
I am sure you will understand my refusal and I offer you cordial greetings.
After reading the final paragraph, it’s clear why it was omitted. Benedict bluntly questions the inclusion of German theologian Peter Hünermann as one of the authors in the set, who he says, “virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope, especially on questions of moral theology.” Furthermore, Benedict points out that Hünermann is a founder of the European Theological Society, which Benedict says, “was initially conceived by him as an organization in opposition to the papal magisterium.”
What do these new sections tell us? Well, for one thing, they don’t help the perception of the collection of books. The fact that the pope emeritus openly and bluntly critique one of their selected authors is certainly something they would not be happy about. Furthermore, the (previously revealed) fact that he didn’t read the box set isn’t much of a selling point, either.
That said, most of my second essay still stands in light of these new revelations, although now their motivations for covering it up were more clear.
But how does all of this impact our understanding of Pope Benedict’s views of Pope Francis?
First, the positive statements made about Francis’s theological continuity with Benedict and Benedict’s praise for Francis’s theological formation were general statements, and stand regardless of whether he read these particular books.
Secondly, the newest paragraph actually lends credibility to the idea that Benedict believes strongly in papal authority on issues of moral theology. He’s criticizing a theologian who takes an unorthodox view on primacy (not unlike Francis’s critics), and questioning why they would want to include someone like that in a project that’s meant to support Pope Francis. I, frankly, share the same concern.
This in no way suggests that Benedict doesn’t wholeheartedly support Pope Francis or his initiatives.
Unfortunately, papal critics are already trying to exploit the fact that these passages were covered up (ignoring or twisting their actual contents) to attack the Holy Father. This was to be expected, however. Despite all signs indicating otherwise, they are unwilling to accept that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict are on the same page, theologically and doctrinally.
And if you have any further questions about whether or not Benedict supports Francis, one need look no farther than this video.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.