Popes opposed? Some thoughts about the negative reactions to Benedict XVI’s essay

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on what he perceives to be the causes for the sexual abuse crisis in the Church (and beyond) is causing much discussion on social media, which can be divided in two debates: the first on the content, and the second on the author.

I want to share some thoughts on that second debate. There are those who believe that a pope emeritus should never be heard from. And should he be heard from, that means he is undermining the policies and pastoral activity of the current pope. That is an untenable position in the case of Benedict XVI’s essay, as he is not proposing any policies or criticising anything that Pope Francis has said or done. Benedict writes that he informed both Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin about the essay before publishing it in a minor periodical for Bavarian clergy. All involved, however, must have known that the essay, coming from the retired pope, would not remained limited to the audience of that publication for long. It is a safe assumption, therefore, that both the pope emeritus and the current pope are at peace with the essay being read across the world.

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To claim that this text is an attack or criticism on Pope Francis is symptomatic of the politicising happening in the Catholic Church. Everything, it seems, has to be seen as either right- or left-wing, with the pope emeritus being taken as a spokesman for the right and Pope Francis as one for the left, This is not only a simplification, but also seriously harmful. If we take successive popes as being automatically contrary to each other, the conclaves and the papacies of each vicar of Christ become nothing but political spectacles. The papacy has its political elements, sure, but it is in the first place a pastoral ministry, if at a global scale. And that ministry has its continuity, although the person exercising it periodically changes. What Pope Benedict XVI said and did is not by definition contrary to what Pope Francis says or does, even if both men, having different personalities, focus on different elements and express themselves differently. The continuity remains, and that is why it is also entirely irresponsible to see what one pope says and does in isolation from what his predecessors did and said (and from the deposit of the faith in which they stand and act). If that happens, you get radically different (mis)interpretations, the likes of which we have seen on an increasing scale in recent years.

The knee-jerk reactions I see in the wake of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay reveal that there is a strong tendency among many to place him in automatic opposition to Pope Francis, and whatever they see the latter standing for. This is not only unjust, but also dishonest.

Photo credit: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

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