One of the endnotes in George Weigel’s 2005 book God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church retells the (likely apocryphal) story of an exchange that is said to have occurred immediately after the 1914 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XV:

When Cardinal Merry del Val approached the now-enthroned Benedict XV to kiss his foot, knee, and hand, as ritual then provided, the new pope looked at him and frostily quoted Psalm 118.22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” To which the unabashed Merry del Val replied with the psalm’s next verse: “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.” One addendum to this tale has it that Merry del Val was subsequently ordered to move out of the Vatican within forty-eight hours.[1]

Rafael Merry del Val y Zulueta, appointed cardinal in 1903 by St. Pius X, was one of the most prominent figures in the Church during Pius X’s pontificate, having served as the Vatican Secretary of State. Cardinal Merry del Val and Pius X were close ideological allies, and he was known for his commitment to tradition and his firm stance against modernist movements within the Church. As the last sentence in Weigel’s anecdote suggests, the election of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo della Chiesa, as Pope Benedict XV, meant a change of tone in the Vatican. It also meant a transfer for Merry del Val to secretary of the Holy Office (widely seen as a demotion at the time).

Cardinal Merry del Val was filled with sadness at the death of his dear friend and collaborator Pius X. One of the cardinal’s biographers, Girolamo Dal-Gal, quoted from letters he wrote in the aftermath of the pope’s passing. In one of these letters, the cardinal wrote, “I have been broken up with grief over the death of my holy Pontiff and father, Pius X. It seems impossible for me to go on living without him and I shall mourn his death all the rest of my life.” Dal-Gal explained, “These sentiments of undying love and loyalty to ‘his’ pope kept recurring in his mind and heart.”[2]

‘His’ pope.

In a sense, to describe Pius as ‘his’ Pope seems odd, even disrespectful. Not to mention that Merry del Val served key roles under four popes: Leo XIII (in various capacities including Apostolic Delegate to Canada), Pius X (as Secretary of State), Benedict XV (as Secretary of the Holy Office), and Pius XI (under whom he continued in the role until his death in 1930). Yet there is no doubt that the pope to whom the cardinal had the most affection and admiration was St. Pius X. Nevertheless, he continued to serve the next two popes loyally and without any public shows of bitterness.

Unfortunately, in subsequent decades — and particularly during the current pontificate — papal confidants in the mold of Merry del Val have been hard to come by. In recent years, progressive Catholics criticized St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI during their papacies for undermining and undoing the legacies of Sts. John XXIII and Paul VI and for “turning back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council. Before them, critics of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae contrasted him harshly with his predecessor, “Good Pope John” — whom they imagined would never write such a thing. And of course, traditionalists were infuriated by these two popes who oversaw the Council, seeing them as not only upending the legacies of their immediate predecessors, but of every pope that came before.

In 2013, I naïvely thought that we’d learned enough from history to understand that popes come and go, fat popes follow thin popes, tall ones follow short ones, and extroverted pontiffs follow popes who are shy and bookish. In the previous century and a half, we’d seen the pendulum swing back and forth several times, and despite numerous scandals, upheavals, and cultural shifts, the Church was somehow still standing. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned early that year with no heir apparent, the only inevitability was unpredictability.

Unfortunately, many prominent Catholics apparently mistook the relative stability of the 34 years under John Paul II and his closest collaborator Benedict XVI for a standard-setting era that would define the direction and priorities of the Church into eternity. The arrival of Pope Francis shook that misconception from the start. There’s continuity with his predecessors, certainly. We were blessed with Benedict’s witness as Pope Emeritus for nearly ten years, and he testified to the “inner continuity” between himself and his successor, as well as to “the inner unity of the message of John Paul II and the basic intentions of Pope Francis.”

During these years, Benedict maintained his pledge of absolute obedience to his successor, made to the college of cardinals prior to the conclave. In his Last Testament, a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Benedict said he did not know who would be elected, but he made the pledge because, “The Pope is the Pope, regardless of who it is.”[3]

Recently, Seewald — who worked on multiple book-length interviews with Benedict XVI and wrote a two-volume biography of the late pope — has deviated from his old collaborator’s stance towards his successor. Last week, the author came out with both barrels blazing against Pope Francis in an interview with the website kath.net. In the interview, translated into English on the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli, Seewald charged Francis with “getting rid of Benedict’s legacy” and asserting that the pope “wants to break out of continuity. And thus from the doctrinal tradition of the Church.”

In the interview Seewald strongly criticized the appointment of Archbishop Victor Fernández as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), charging that Fernández “wants to change the catechism, relativize the statements of the Bible, put celibacy up for discussion.” Seewald described Fernández’s definition of his new role as “slippery, but also downright grotesque in view of the dramatic crisis of the Church in the West.”

Seewald took offense at the letter of Pope Francis to the new prefect, in which the pope wrote that the DDF “in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued.” To Fernández, he added, “What I expect from you is certainly something very different.” When reading these words from a broad perspective, they can reasonably be understood as a critique of the means used to punish dissent and heresy in earlier centuries, when the dicastery was known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Roman Inquisition. This period conjures up images of excommunication, banishment, branding, or worse.

Others may reasonably associate the idea of “immoral methods” with the silencing of theologians by the Congregation of the Holy Office in the first half of the 20th century, prior to Vatican II. This was decried on the floor of the Council in 1963 by German Cardinal Joseph Frings, who described the Office as an entity “whose methods and behavior do not conform to the modern era and are a source of scandal to the world.” At the Council, Cardinal Frings relied on the assistance of his theological advisor, or peritus — a young priest by the name of Joseph Ratzinger.

All of this is perfectly in line with what soon followed: Integrae Servandae — the 1965 apostolic letter that changed the Holy Office into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this letter, St. Paul VI wrote, “the defense of the faith is now better served by promoting doctrine, in such a way that, while errors stand corrected and those who err are gently called back to the truth, heralds of the Gospel may find new strength.” Pope Francis’s words are also reflected in the message of St. John Paul II, who lamented earlier methods used by the Church to correct doctrinal errors in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, writing, “Another painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of the truth” (n. 35).

Unfortunately, many papal critics today fail to take the long view, instead opting for a myopic evaluation of our current pope that is focused on detecting contradictions and possible slights against his two most recent predecessors. In this vein, Seewald objects to Pope Francis’s assertion that the dicastery once “used immoral methods,” asking “How could this not be seen as a reference to former prefect of the faith Joseph Ratzinger? As well as an attempt to legitimize the change of course.” Later in the interview he says the phrase “immoral methods” is “infamous,” insisting that it is “meant to discredit the high level of the Congregation under Cardinal Müller and Ratzinger in order to make relativism hopeful.”

Seewald also alleged that the pope ousted former prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller “at the first opportunity.” In fact, Francis re-appointed Müller as prefect upon his election as pope and named him a cardinal at his first consistory in February 2014. Müller went on to serve his full five-year term as prefect despite a clearly unusual (and uncomfortable) relationship between prefect and pope. As the pope, Francis was under no obligation to keep Müller on, but he did. At various times during Müller’s five-year term, it seemed that Pope Francis was forced to work around him and rely on other prelates such as Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop Fernández, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga to assist him with many tasks — such as explaining the more challenging teachings in Amoris Laetitia — typically associated with the doctrinal prefect. And given problems like his seemingly ever-shifting ideas about Amoris and his apparent climate change denialism (tremendously out of sync with Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’), it was unclear whether Cardinal Müller was competent to stay in the position as long as he did.

The rest of the Seewald interview amounts to one anti-papal trope after another: Theodore McCarrick, capitulation to China, the St. Gallen mafia, complaints about Traditionis Custodes, the “dismantling” of Pope Benedict’s legacy. It seems odd that a man so deeply immersed in the thought and spirituality of one pope — in fact, it led to his conversion — has such a bitter and superficial understanding of his successor. Of course, he is not alone.

The American author George Weigel, famous for his approximately 1,000-page biography of St. John Paul II, has spent much of the past decade attempting to chip away at Pope Francis’s authority and credibility. Unlike Peter Seewald, who joined the pantheon of papal detractors relatively late, Weigel quietly took up the cause early in the pontificate. Oh, he tried at first to help shape an image of the man he described as “the old-school Argentine Jesuit” that fit into his ideological paradigm, trying to inform readers about what they should expect from Francis based upon one meeting with the man 10 months earlier: “a man whose rich interior life was the basis of his public life,” with “a true evangelical humility” and “prudence in judging people and situations.” Weigel also said then-Cardinal Bergoglio “displayed a shrewd, but not cynical, grasp of just what was wrong with the Church’s central bureaucratic machinery, and why.”

Shortly thereafter, he began writing columns in which he proposed his own ideas on Church reform (which, as it happened, corresponded with the themes of his latest book) as things Pope Francis would be wise to consider. But by January 2014, his earlier confidence was showing signs of wavering, such as when he reminded readers about “What popes can and can’t do.”

On the eve of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October 2014, Weigel was beginning to sound the alarm, announcing: “Rome, we have a problem.” By the end of that gathering, Weigel was showing clear signs that disillusionment had started to set in — he compared the debates to the Donatist controversy and lamented that “a lot of theological confusion was displayed by elders of the Church who really ought to know better.” In the years that followed, Weigel’s descent into anti-papal punditry solidified. Lowlights include reports from Synods under the lazy pseudonym “Xavier Rynne II,” after the pen named used by Fr. Francis X. Murphy in the New Yorker during the Second Vatican Council. In 2015, Michael Sean Winters described “Rynne 2.0” as “nothing but a launching pad for attacks on the pope.”

Weigel also wrote several columns that came back to bite him, in which he sang the praises of the now-disgraced Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Later, when the former nuncio began openly championing Russian military propaganda, Weigel attempted to float the “Viganò has a new ghostwriter” hypothesis — almost a year after Gareth Thomas lampooned the theory in the form of a chapter from an Umberto Eco novel. It’s understandable to write from a place of bitterness, but to be months behind the meme-and-parody cycle while doing so is sad.

Today, Weigel’s message about Pope Francis is a resounding “no.” No to synodality. No to the synod’s working document. No to radical inclusion. No to Pope Francis daring to interpret and implement the Council. No to World Youth Day. No to ultramontanism. Most of all, no to Pope Francis.

In his dreary column for the “somber” 10th anniversary of Francis’s election, Weigel wrote that “papal autocracy has created a miasma of fear,” including a “fear engendered by a systematic effort to deconstruct the legacy of St. John Paul II.” Is this really the atmosphere in Rome, or is he spending too much time commiserating with burned out members of the “old guard”? Weigel suggests that “serious, fraternal, charitable debate” is not tolerated under the current pontificate, but if such complaints sound anything like those made by Weigel and Seewald, they are far from serious, fraternal, or charitable.

Look, I didn’t know John Paul personally, but as a lifelong, practicing Catholic from a devout family who was born in 1979, he was the only pope I knew for the first quarter-century of my life. Benedict was elected two months before I was married in 2005, and was pope during the key years of my early adulthood. I benefitted greatly from his writing. I don’t consider Benedict’s papacy to have been an extension of John Paul’s. When he was pope, he put his own unique mark on the Church, just as John Paul II did before him. If John XXIII had lived another five years, the outcome of the Council would likely have been much different than it was under Paul VI. Even Pope John Paul I, in his short pontificate, made an imprint on the office that remains. We must understand that each pope is unique, and no pope can bind his successors to continue his personal projects.

To judge a papacy on the extent to which a pontiff upholds the “legacy” of one of his predecessors is not only unfair to the man but betrays a gross mistrust of Christ’s promise to the Church regarding Peter and his successors. The French philosopher Jean Guitton — who served in a similar role with Paul VI as Seewald with Benedict and Weigel with John Paul — recognized this. In the preface to The Pope Speaks, his book of conversations with Pope Paul, Guitton wrote, “Every pontiff remains himself. He keeps his moods, his human way of being. Without wishing to, perhaps without being aware of it, he stamps his office with his humanity as a seal. I would even say that in that high office where one is no longer judged except by God, the personality can sometimes blossom into ease and joviality, as was seen in the case of John XXIII, who resolved to be plainly and simply himself. Yet Pope Paul’s way cannot be that of Pope John.”[4]

People often ask me and the other contributors to Where Peter Is, “What will you do if the next pope reverses everything Francis has done?” Well, I will say this much: we certainly won’t begin bashing the pope. And as long as WPI exists, I will do everything in my power to ensure that it always supports the pope, whoever he is — even if that means stepping aside and letting someone else do it. Still, it goes without saying that Francis is “my” pope, in that his teaching and example has helped shape me and deepened my faith in ways I never imagined. Yes, I am nervous about who the next pope might be or what changes he will make, but I also look forward to his unique perspective, ideas, and gifts. And if he rankles me, I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.

The other day, Austen Ivereigh, who has written about and interviewed Pope Francis extensively, tweeted (in response to the behavior of Seewald and Weigel during the current pontificate), “Lord rescue me, a Pope Francis biographer, from making a total ass of myself by standing in judgement over future popes, accusing them of betrayal. Give me the humility & wisdom to recognise the Spirit’s anointing in every pontificate, and not dismiss what I fail to value. Amen.”

I found it funny, although the pope’s critics and a contingent of traditionalist trolls didn’t see it that way. But it is reassuring that Ivereigh recognizes the danger now, so that he can avoid descending down the path that Seewald and Weigel have chosen.

Perhaps the ideal example for all of us — no matter who is “your” pope — is Cardinal Merry del Val. How did he manage to show respect and grace towards Pope Benedict XV, despite their differences? I think it may have something to do with the part of his legacy that has endured most strongly over the years — the Litany of Humility prayer. Traditionally, Merry del Val is credited with composing the litany, although the evidence suggests that it predates his priesthood. Still, his biographers agree that he prayed this prayer every day after Mass, and surely it made a profound impact on his spiritual and personal life:

The Litany of Humility

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being loved,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being honored,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being praised,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being despised,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, O Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I go unnoticed,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.



[1]  Weigel, George. God’s choicePope Benedict XVI and the future of the Catholic Church.” New York : HarperCollins, 2005, p. 279.

[2] Dal-Gal, Girolamo. The Spiritual Life of Cardinal Merry del Val. Mercier Press, 1959, p. 37.

[3] Benedict XVI, Pope; Seewald, Peter. Last Testament: In His Own Words (Kindle Locations 693-694). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[4] Guitton, Jean. The Pope Speaks: Dialogues of Paul VI with Jean Guitton (New York, 1968), ix.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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