One of the dangers of having a new Pope is that we see everything he says and does as a break from the actions and words of his predecessor. This is especially true if the charisma of the new Pope is so different than that of his predecessor.
In the short weeks since his election, Pope Francis has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of lots of people, through his easygoing nature as a people’s person, at comfortable with social interaction and obviously valuing the contacts with his coworkers, not just in the Curia, but also the people working the kitchens, offices and streets of the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI is clearly a more private man, appreciating the quiet of his study and his books, of contemplation and the written word. That is not to say that he avoided people, or that Pope Francis is a stranger to solitude and careful thoughts, but for the sake of this blog post, the difference is certainly noticeable.
Does this make the one Pope better than the other? Obviously not. But there is risk that we start thinking of the one we most easily identify with as the origin of many seemingly new thoughts and actions.
Today, Pope Francis told Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to continue “along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse”. Many media, both secular and Catholic, reported this today as a new position taken by the Holy Father, as a tougher stance on sexual abuse. This is, as the official blurb says, quite untrue. Pope Francis wants to continue what Pope Benedict started.
Of course, Pope Francis’ recommendation is praiseworthy, but it must not be understood as a divergence from the path taken by Pope Benedict XVI. It is a continuation. By presenting it otherwise, we unfairly pit the one Pope against the other, and depict Pope Benedict as somehow not as good as Pope Francis. And why? Only because Benedict is less of a people’s person, more retiring and at ease with decorum and ritual than Pope Francis is.
It is true, both Popes are different, but neither exists in isolation. Father Z is right when he says that we should “read Francis through Benedict“. If we don’t, we not only run the risk of misunderstanding either man, but also of being guilty of deception and, in fact, superficiality.