Francis is the Pope of the Catholic Church, but at this unique point in our history, we have a Pope Emeritus too. Sure, the old Benedict cardboard cut-outs have been taken down, but they haven’t been thrown away. They’ve been hiding in a back closet for five years, ready to come out for big events.
Below, I recall the writings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3: do not let your preferences, even for a holy man like Pope Benedict, undermine your adherence to the Spirit, who guides the Church today under the leadership and authority of Pope Francis.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has pledged to live a life of prayer and study, and in some instances, he has publicly offered encouragement to the Church by responding to letters, giving interviews, and attending notable events. With regards to his public statements, Pedro Gabriel outlines the bulk of these in a three-part series.
Here, Pedro describes the ways in which Benedict has given support to Francis’ papacy, above all by encouraging the habit of obedience and ensuring the faithful that his resignation was prompted by the Lord and not by curial pressure. From what he has said so far, Benedict has avoided particular comments or criticisms of Francis’ papacy, instead offering broad comments in support of his ministry.
But if he is no longer the Pope, why are we continually fascinated by what Pope Emeritus Benedict has to say anyway?
In one sense, this fascination is borne of love and adoration for a singular man in the Church’s history. In my own experience, his writings illuminated facets of the Christian life that were previously hidden from view or clouded by secular culture or imperfect catechesis. Many, like myself, long to see what other insights he can still offer us today.
Yet, in other sense, this fascination is borne out of a need to judge the present papacy, for or against. For example, Benedict spoke at a funeral for Cardinal Joachim Meisner and he said of the late Cardinal, “[W]hat moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even if the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” This comment could be easily meant in any number of ways, most specifically to the Cardinal’s very real trust in the Lord. It is a theme Benedict returned to often during his papacy. But some conservative news websites instantly took this as a swipe at Francis, an insight, as OnePeterFive puts it, into what is truly on Pope Benedict’s mind.
I think many are still fascinated with what Benedict has to say because they want their own views or interpretations to be validated during Francis’ papacy. Even the Vatican press office was guilty of this. What I mean by a “validation” is that, for some, the present Pope is not enough and Benedict’s thoughts are needed to support (or negate) what Francis is saying.
It’s clear to anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account that Benedict XVI is more popular with some Catholics than Francis. Sadly, however, snippets of Benedict’s writings without context, or hearsay about Benedict’s opinions, has provided a sort of backstop to Francis’ papacy within these Catholic circles.
In all cases, I find that this backstopping undermines the Spirit who is guiding the Church today under the leadership of Pope Francis by interfering with the religious assent we owe him.
In Lumen Gentium, the Church puts it in this way:
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
I wanted to share two additional examples that have happened only recently. The first involves the Vatican press office’s treatment of Benedict’s letter regarding the “Theology of Pope Francis” book series. Even in its announcement of the book series, the Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication gave significant weight to the words of Benedict, which were revealed in their full a week later only after some backlash. While originally, the Vatican attempted to frame the letter positively for the book series, suggesting that Benedict endorsed not only the series but the theology of Francis, it was clear later that the letter didn’t go nearly as far.
We found out later that Benedict did express support for Francis’ papacy and saw continuity with his own papacy, but the full letter also revealed that Benedict did not actually read the entire series. He also expressed some hesitation over one of the authors who had taken steps to undermine the magisterium in the past. The Vatican admitted its mistake, but the damage had already been done. As the AP put it, the “manipulation changed the meaning of the image in a way that violated photojournalist industry standards.”
Reflecting on this episode in the context of backstopping, why it was necessary to put so much stress on the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict at all? If Benedict did offer his opinion on the series as requested (as I can only imagine it was) then why didn’t the Vatican publish the letter in full? It’s obvious to me that press office wanted the letter to be a full endorsement of the series, which unfortunately it was not.
Why was it so important for the Vatican to show that Benedict endorsed the series? The simple answer is that the Vatican wanted to increase sales, which is fine. But I think in a more particular sense, they did it to qualify Francis’ theology or frame it within the context of a previous Pope so that readers would feel more comfortable purchasing it.
The second example of backstopping is of another sort. Here, the National Catholic Register and the reporter Edward Pentin, both in a recent article and on Twitter source, cite “reliable and authoritative sources” that Pope Emeritus Benedict “has given full support” to seven German bishops who were critical of a recent proposal to extend the Eucharist to non-Catholic Christians. Here, Mr. Pentin has put words in Benedict’s mouth and possibly undermined both Francis’ pastoral strategy with regard to the German proposal and the work of the CDF.
Directly after a paragraph citing Francis’ desire for the CDF response to remain confidential, Mr. Pentin again cites unnamed “inside sources” regarding the supposed contents of the CDF’s response. This paragraph is followed by another indicating that it is “unknown” why the contents are to remain confidential, and then cites some who “have speculated” that it might be a play (by Francis, we presume) to let the proposal in support of intercommunion remain in force.
The article is full of elements that seek to undermine Francis, but the one that struck me was the comment regarding Pope Emeritus Benedict. Why was it so important to involve Benedict here? Given the nature of other comments in the article, it is once again clear to me that the author disagrees with Francis’ strategy and wishes to find other authoritative support for the German Bishops who were critical of intercommunion. Unfortunately, it’s as if Mr Pentin is looking to play Benedict against Francis.
More sinisterly than the Vatican Press Office, who at least sought to suggest continuity between the two popes, Mr. Pentin and the Register have taken steps to undermine the present Pope’s authority and pastoral strategy.
While I applaud efforts to defend and promote the truth of the faith, which I assume Mr. Pentin was trying to do, such disputes are rightly and properly settled by the Pope himself, with the assistance of the CDF and other Church offices as Francis sees fit. It is certainly not the responsibility of an American journalist to defend the truth by underhandedly swaying public opinion to or from certain personages and their respective opinions.
It is up to the judgment of the Supreme Pontiff, to whose care Christ’s whole flock has been entrusted, to determine, according to the needs of the Church as they change over the course of centuries, the way in which this care may best be exercised—whether in a personal or a collegial way. The Roman Pontiff, taking account of the Church’s welfare, proceeds according to his own discretion in arranging, promoting and approving the exercise of collegial activity. (Appendix to Lumen Gentium)
Benedict has generally been careful to remain distant from particular church disputes. Therefore, in both of these cases, backstopping, whether done intentionally or not, in good-faith or not, has undermined the deference we uniquely owe to the present Pope. Our trust in Francis and in his pastorship must not be supplanted by a preference for another man’s theology.
The “hermeneutic of continuity” is a staple of modern Church doctrine advanced by Benedict. Francis’ papacy is a continuity of the Petrine papacy of 2000 years ago and Benedict’s papacy of 10 years ago. The Church prior to Vatican II is the same Church as the Church post-Vatican II. Still, Catholics should embrace the “newness” of the present Pope and not be afraid to embrace, in good conscience, wherever the shepherd might lead his sheep.
Francis writes, “God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond.” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 135). Or in the words of Benedict, “[T]here is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.” (Caritas in Veritate, 12).
Let’s be clear here: backstopping of the kind I warn against is not an attempt to uncover the ways in which the theology of Francis and Benedict are similar or different, or how Francis authentically develops and applies the thoughts of Benedict. Such efforts undertaken in good faith are almost unerringly fruitful. It is also not an attempt to suggest that we should disregard everything that has been written by Popes previously. Not at all.
Rather, the problem is the effort by some to call God’s sheep to another shepherd, usually one of their own making.