Blurred lines – much ado about nothing

Blurred lines – much ado about nothing

When I wrote my 3-part series “Was Pope Benedict forced to resign?”, I was able to gather a lot of evidence showing how the Pope Emeritus has a positive opinion about the reigning pontiff. So, imagine my contentment when, just the week after I published that series, a letter from Benedict was made public where the Pope Emeritus said, and I quote:

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.

It was inescapable. Pope Benedict had endorsed Francis yet again. Anti-Francis critics couldn’t continue to use his alleged “silence” to foster conspiracy theories about him being secretly opposed to Francis. It was consistent with all my research on the matter. And it was now clearer than ever before.

The Polemic

So imagine my surprise when, the very next day, I saw that dissenters had managed to avoid the truth staring before their very eyes yet again.

It seemed like Associated Press (AP) had published an article accusing the Vatican of having “doctored” the aforementioned letter in a way that “altered the meaning of the quotes the Vatican chose to highlight.”

In what way was the letter “doctored”? Well, the letter had been sent in the context of the release of an 11-volume collection about Pope Francis’ theology. And apparently, the quotes I mentioned were leaked in conjunction with a photograph from the letter. This photo highlighted these quotes, by having blurred the subsequent lines (and omitting the second page of the letter altogether). By doing so, the Vatican allegedly “changed the meaning of the image in a way that violated photojournalist industry standards”, which is significant because “news media rely on Vatican photographers for images of the pope at events that are otherwise closed to independent media”.

Unsurprisingly, all secular media started to repeat the AP story, word by word, without any investigation or even thought about whether there was any truth to it.

At the same time, dissenters also started to pick up the story and faithfully parroting the AP words to discredit the letter and advance the notion of an obscure Vatican conspiracy to paint Francis as a great theologian, by abusing Benedict’s words. It’s interesting that these are usually the same people who are distrustful of the secular media and who, throughout the entire bulk of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, have time and time again decried the media’s misquotings of him. Suddenly, the media was credible, since it fitted their agendas.

But then, let us ask, in what way did the omitted paragraphs change the meaning of the quotes?

Did Benedict contradict the previous paragraphs by claiming that Francis wasn’t a deep theologian after all? That there wasn’t, after all, continuity between both pontificates? Did he write: “Haha, just kidding”? Did he type a coded SOS meaning: “Help, they are forcing me to write this”?

Nope. Apparently the other paragraphs said… that he hadn’t read the books. And that he was surprised by the inclusion (each volume had a different author) of a theologian who had previously railed against papal authority on moral matters.

Here are the missing paragraphs, as translated by Edward Pentin (who is no friends with Pope Francis) and published on National Catholic Register.

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.”

The Hollowness of the Accusation

Since then, I have tirelessly scavenged the social media, to no avail, seeking for an answer to this simple question:

In what way does the fact of Benedict not having read/endorsed the books alter the meaning of the quotes? Please, be specific

This inquiry inexorably leads the dissenter to again repeat the script from AP and anti-Francis media about “doctored letters” and “unethical journalism” and such. But I have failed to see anyone proving to me, in a specific way, how the quotes were altered by Benedict not having read the books or about him mentioning the dissenting author. Which leads me to an obvious conclusion: this is just a lame excuse to discredit the whole letter, a pitiful fig-leaf to which they must cling to in their despair to avoid the scolding from Benedict.

However, since we live in a fallen world, it behooves the apologist to go the extra mile and prove his point, even when the burden of proof lies on the other side. So let us examine the quotes in question again:

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.”

 Here, Benedict says he applauds the initiative of the books. What is the reason why he applauds the initiative? Because the initiative wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice according to which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological formation.

In other words, the “foolish prejudice” is a given. Benedict believes there is such a foolish prejudice. That’s why he applauds the initiative. Even if he didn’t read the books, he applauds the initiative. Why? Because the initiative opposes and reacts to a foolish prejudice which Benedict also, obviously, opposes.

This applause is made even the more remarkable by the presence of a dissenting theologian in there. Even if Benedict had reason not to applaud the initiative because of that (and mind you, I’m talking about the initiative, not the books themselves), the very fact the initiative opposes that foolish prejudice maintains the applause there.

The omitted paragraphs, therefore, do not alter the meaning of this quote. Let us see the other one.

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.

This one is a bit more tricky, since the volumes (which Benedict hasn’t read) are the things which help see the inner continuity. However, again we may see that Benedict believes such an inner continuity exists. For if it didn’t, how could Benedict claim the volumes “rightly” “help to see” such continuity?

And the presence of the dissenting theologian has nothing to do with whether continuity exists between Francis and Benedict.

Again, the omitted paragraphs, do not alter the meaning of this quote. Even Sandro Magister (another person who is no friends of Francis) admits as such: “In Francis, Benedict recognizes that which is undeniable: his having had a profound “formation” in theology and philosophy. Just as he recognizes an “interior continuity” between the two pontificates, where the adjective “interior” applies at least as much as the substantive “continuity,” given “all the differences of style and temperament.

But then, how do people get away with saying the omitted paragraphs alter the meaning of the quote? They do so using two strategies:

1. The “I don’t like it, therefore it’s not what he meant” strategy

This is the Magister Option: claim it was all irony. After Magister admitted those quotes from Benedict were “undeniable”, he then goes on to read the following paragraph as a “proof of his [Benedict’s] refined streak of irony”.

In other words, the things the dissenters don’t like were said in irony.

Proof for this interpretation? Well: “It’s all there for the reading. And he who wishes to understand, let him understand.” Translation: wink wink nudge nudge, no need for further proof.

Well, as for me, gratuitous assertion gratuitously denied.

2. The Conceptual Prestidigitation strategy

The second approach is this: use “Pope Francis’ theology” and “books about Pope Francis’ theology” interchangeably, according to what fits best. Alternatively, you may use “Pope Francis”, “The Vatican” and “The Vatican communications office” as synonyms, through guilt by association.

So, when Benedict says that he can’t write a short and dense theological passage about the books, people jump in to postulate Benedict was actually saying he couldn’t contribute a theological assessment of Francis’ theology altogether.

Here is a flagrant example from the AP news itself:

The letter was cited by Monsignor Dario Vigano, chief of communications, to rebut critics of Francis who question his theological and philosophical heft and say he represents a rupture from Benedict’s doctrine-minded papacy.


The missing content significantly altered the meaning of the quotes the Vatican chose to highlight, which were widely picked up by the media. Those quotes suggested that Benedict had read the volume, agreed with it and given it his full endorsement and assessment.

So, which is it? Was the letter cited to rebut critics of Francis’ theology? Or were the quotes meant to suggest that Benedict was agreeing with the books about Francis’ theology? Those are two very different claims. One claim is about Francis’ theology, the other claim is about the books.

Because the quotes *do* rebut anti-Francis critics who question his theological and philosophical heft and say he represents a rupture from Benedict’s papacy. Like, literally. And, as I’ve shown above, the subsequent paragraphs do not cancel this rebuttal. So, if what is meant is to rebut the anti-Francis critic, the omitted bits do not alter the meaning of the quotes, contrary to what AP asserts.

Questions (conveniently) left in the air

There are lots of other things that could be said about this.

Is it really proven that Benedict didn’t read the books? AP news categorically says so (“The Vatican admitted (…) that it blurred the two final lines of the first page where Benedict begins to explain that he didn’t actually read the books in question). However, Benedict says that the “small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation”. How can Benedict say the volumes show something (anything?) if he hasn’t read them? And even go as far as say they show it “rightly”? Pentin’s translation mentions Benedict didn’t contribute a theological passage because he would only write about books he had “read really well”. Couldn’t the Pope Emeritus have skimmed through the volumes enough to make a statement about them, even if he didn’t read with the proper depth needed in order to write a theologically dense prologue about them?

Was “doctored” an appropriate term to throw around? “Doctored” implies the letter was tampered with the purpose to deceive. It is, through innuendo, imputing motives to the Vatican’s communication office, which in turn fuels the conspiracy theorists. However, a case can be made that incompetence, not malice was behind all of this. Furthermore, according to the Vatican, “the choice was motivated by confidentiality and not by any intention to censor”. Is it really that strange, given that in there Benedict talks in an unfavorable manner about someone else? Shouldn’t we charitably assume the best intentions possible from Fr. Vigano?

And is it really proven that Benedict didn’t endorse the books because of the dissenter theologian? Even if the paragraph placement is odd, the only place in the letter where Benedict mentions a reason for not writing the passage is in the previous paragraph, where he says he will only write about books he had read well, and can’t do it for “physical reasons” and “other commitments”. Could he deny an endorsement on account of reasons enumerated on an “aside” note? Are we really certain the “surprise” Benedict mentioned is meant in a bad sense, instead of in a sense of “This theologian was once against papal authority and now he’s not?”.

As tempting as it is for me to try to address these questions, I won’t do it. Because I would risk falling into the trap of the Conceptual Prestidigitation trick. It is not the apologist job to defend the Vatican’s communication office, which is a fallible human institution. By doing so, I could muddy the waters even more, by inadvertently validating the confusion that arises from identifying “Pope Francis” with the “Vatican’s communication office”. The duty to answer these questions belongs to the media, if they are really so concerned with the truth and journalistic integrity and not with sensationalist polemics.

No. The apologist’s job is to defend the deposit of the faith (which includes Amoris Laetitia) and the Catholic Church that upholds it (including the Pope, especially when he is under vicious attacks from within). And to do so I must warn my readers to not pay attention to rhetorical fireworks that only want to distract us from the essential. So, I ask you to focus on these undeniable facts:

  1. Pope Benedict *did* say it was a foolish prejudice to claim Francis is a pastoral man with no theological depth
  2. Pope Benedict *did* say there was inner continuity between both pontificates
  3. The subsequent paragraphs in the letter do not in any way alter the meaning of points 1. and 2.
  4. Apologists have shared the letter to highlight points 1 and 2, not to validate any books or any action from the Vatican regarding the promotion of the books
  5. Since point 3. is true, then apologists may do point 4. without being affected with any polemics surrounding the letter


In conclusion, this Benedictine letter is an awesome addition to my work on Ratzinger on this blog. It is consistent with what I’ve shown: In all his interventions about Francis, Benedict has only talked favorably of his successor. The only time it could be construed as otherwise, was on a single reference to a “capsizing boat” which (as I have explained here) was selectively quoted by omitting bits which completely altered the meaning of that passage. Dissenters didn’t have any problem doing it at that time. Which shows they are not really concerned about journalistic ethics or respect towards the Pope Emeritus, but only in what can drive their anti-Francis agenda forward.

Pedro Gabriel

Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.


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