So far, the evidence seems to be piling up in favor of Pope Benedict’s free resignation and his affection for Pope Francis. But then, on July 2017, breaking news boomed all across the ultratraditionalist media, which had mounted a concerted resistance against Pope Francis since his election and/or since his publication of Amoris Laetitia (AL): Benedict had delivered a message through his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, to be read on the funeral of Cardinal Meisner. This was one of the cardinals who had issued dubia that many people used to undermine AL. On that message, the Pope Emeritus had allegedly said the Church was capsicizing (because of Pope Francis, wink wink) and he allegedly had commended Cardinal Meisner for not leaving his post. It seemed – so the anti-Francis media claimed – like Benedict had finally woken up from his silence and allied himself with them against Francis.
Trouble is, that’s not a very plausible explanation to what Benedict said. Here’s the full text and here’s the sentence at the center of all the polemic (assuming the English translation, done by traditionalist sites, is accurate to the original meaning):
“What particularly impressed me in that last talk with the retired Cardinal, was the loosened joy, the inner joy, and the confidence he had found. We know that this passionate shepherd and pastor found it difficult to leave his post, especially at a time in which the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age and who live and think the faith with determination. However, what 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 when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.”
Notice that, contrary to what has been reported in those media outlets, Pope Benedict doesn’t say the Church is capsizing. He is saying that he was impressed by Cardinal Meisner’s deep conviction that God doesn’t abandon His Church, *even when* the Church (metaphorically identified with a boat) has taken on so much water *so as to be* on the *verge* of capsizing. It is not that the Church is capsizing right now, it’s that God will take care of His Church even if that comes to pass… and Benedict commends Meisner for discovering this truth.
This sentence is completely different from what has been sold to us. In fact, it seems to me to be a soft rebuke of all the Chicken Littles that were panicking all over the place because of an alleged Great Apostasy, or because of “the smoke of Satan” that had entered the Church. It was an invitation for them to have faith in the indefectibility of the Church.
Reinforcing this belief is that bit, which was completely ignored, about Cardinal Meisner having *learned* to *let go*. In fact, Pope Benedict is saying that this newly learned skill of “letting go” was even *all the more* impressive than Cardinal Meisner’s merits as a fighter who found it “difficult to leave is post” on his battle against the dictatorship of the spirit of the age. Those are his words.
It is also relevant that the “Church as a boat” metaphor is a common theme in Benedict, so him using it again may not mean anything particular, besides a reference to the normal condition of the Church, now and always.
If Benedict really wanted to issue a battle cry for radical traditionalists to gather around him against Pope Francis, he should’ve done it more clearly, in an unambiguous fashion. It is paradoxical, to say the least, that those who decry Amoris Laetitia on the basis of it being an unclear and ambiguous document, would cling to such an unclear and ambiguous interpretation from a single text from Pope Benedict to justify their actions.
Either way, on the wake of that polemic, Archbishop Georg Gänswein (the same secretary who had delivered the polemic letter at Cardinal Meisner’s funeral) accused those who tried to pit Benedict against Francis of nothing less than “stupidity”.
It is noteworthy that Archbishop Gänswein has been Pope Benedict’s personal secretary since 2003. It is higly unlikely he is also part of any anti-Benedict conspiracy.
But can it be possible that Pope Benedict’s tone has shifted since the publication of Amoris Laetitia? Again, we can see evidence from his own writings. In 2017, Cardinal Gerhard Müler, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, didn’t see his 5-year mandate renewed by Pope Francis, being later replaced by Cardinal Ladaria.
Soon, the same media came up with lots of conspiracy theories about how Cardinal Müller had been “fired” and silenced, since the cardinal had some public interventions that seemed to clash with the argentinian interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (the one more faithful to the document, according to Pope Francis). Many of these conspiracy theories were debunked by none other than Cardinal Muller himself, but the climate of suspicion remained.
It was on that ocasion that Benedict issued a letter to Müller. This was appropriate, given that Müller had been previously nominated by Benedict and given the common history they had together (which is alluded to in the letter).
But does Benedict also alude to Francis? Yes. If we assume this translation, done by ultratraditionalist circles, is accurate, we can see that:
“During your Roman years you always undertook to act not only as a scholar, but as a sage, like a father of the Church. You defended the clear traditions of the faith, yet along the lines of Pope Francis, you sought to understand how they can be lived today“.
It is worth repeating, “along the lines of Pope Francis“. There is no condemnation of the reigning pontiff here.
In fact, the whole letter seems to commend a theology that is not so much based on “expertise“, but rather in “sageness“.
“The prefect did not necessarily need to be a theologian, but a sage, who in tackling theological questions would not make specific valuations, but would discern what to do for that [particular] time in the Church.”
“Discernment” for what is best for the Church at any given time, is to be valued above great knowledge and scientific proficiency in theology. Seems very close to Pope Francis’ message to me.
Also, please note that Benedict quells any conspiracy theories about Müller’s being “laid off“.
“In the meantime, your five-year contract in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith has expired.”
The last public intervention from the Pope Emeritus is from February this year. It was a letter he delivered to the higly regarded Corriere della Serra, answering some of their reader’s concerns about him. In that letter, Benedict says:
“Dear Dott. Franco: I was moved that so many readers of your newspaper would like to know how I am spending this last period of my life. I can only say that with the slow decline of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards Home. It is a great grace for me to be surrounded in this last, sometimes a little tiring, piece of road, by such love and goodness that I could not have imagined. In this sense, I also consider the question of your readers as an accompaniment along a stretch. This is why I cannot but be grateful, assuring all of you of my prayers. Best regards“
Again, consistency. Since the day he resigned, it was health related problems Benedict invoked for his resignation. And again he talks about how he’s surrounded by love and goodness. Hardly the discourse of a prisioner.
Given the overwhelming evidence available in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation as a free act and in favor of his support for Pope Francis… and given the extreme paucity and frailty and ambiguity of evidence for the opposing view… it is easy to conclude that claims of a big conspiracy to replace Benedict with Francis can only be driven by an ideological bias, by an a priori wish to undermine Francis’ legitimacy.
People who do this usually announce these conspiracy theories with an aura of respect and praise for Benedict’s allegedly conservative and traditionalist papacy. They say they want him back on the throne of St. Peter, for being such a good pope. That he was a good pope, I can agree on. But people who do this are, in fact, not honoring Benedict. Rather, they are purposefully misinterpreting him for ideological gain. In that respect, they are no different from the secular media who have tried to bury his message from day 1.
Even worse, these kind of smears directed at Pope Francis are also, in fact, a kind of veiled insult against Benedict, whether the proponents of such conspiracy theories realize it or not. Because, if such conspiracy theories are true, then our good Pope Benedict XVI, when threatened by the obscure forces bent in overthrowing the Church, preferred to save his own life or preserve his threatened worldly values to the supreme wellbeing of the flock entrusted to him, allowing himself to be silenced, or be used as a prop, even reaching the point of outright lying.
This is a very grave accusation to be leveled against a pontiff, an accusation which must be very carefully weighed before being carelessly thrown around. But then again, I wouldn’t expect prudence from people who accuse Pope Francis of heresy, which is also a very serious charge, mandating competence and authority.
As a Catholic, the attacks against the reigning Pope from internal sectors within the Church are intolerable to me. But, as a Ratzingerian, this kind of soft slur against my beloved Pope Benedict are especially repugnant. With Joseph Ratzinger, I learned to value truth above ideology as a path to God. To defend the truth as he taught me I should do: that’s what I hope to have accomplished with this article.
Photo credit: Osservatore Romano via Reuters
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.