Benedict XVI is silent, but we all know what he thinks

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 24, 2017

When Pope-emeritus Benedict praised the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner for maintaining his faith in the Church “even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck,” many readers thought he was referring to the state of Catholicism under Pope Francis. Was he?

Archbishop Georg Gänswein insists that he was not. Indeed the longtime secretary to the retired Pontiff thinks it is “stupid” to use the remark “in an anti-Francis tone.”

Archbishop Gänswein has a convincing argument. Before and during his own pontificate, Benedict XVI frequently used the same image of the Church as a storm-tossed ship. It is not surprising that he returned to that image in his homage to an old friend. Moreover, since stepping down the former Pope has been extremely careful to avoid statements that could be seen as critical of his successor. Benedict has been invariably deferential to Pope Francis, and his few public comments have been complimentary. It would be unlike him to take a slap at the reigning Pontiff—and especially to do so in the context of such a solemn occasion as Cardinal Meisner’s funeral.

And yet… and yet… It is difficult to read the former Pope’s comments about the danger of shipwreck, and the “pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist,” without noticing that these words can easily be applied to current Vatican leadership. Could Benedict—always a careful wordsmith—have failed to notice how they could be interpreted?

On balance I believe that Archbishop Gänswein is right: that Benedict “wasn’t alluding to anything specific” apart from the strong faith of Cardinal Meisner. Still the statement did strike a chord, whether or not that was the former Pope’s intent.

In his weekly column from the Vatican, Andrea Gagliarducci offers a persuasive explanation for this phenomenon. The statement read at Cardinal Meisner’s funeral did not create ripples of excitement because it revealed what the silent Pope-emeritus was really thinking, Gagliarducci argues. Quite the contrary: “These polemics could originate from the fact that everyone knows Benedict XVI’s thought very well.”

The former Pope has been silent since his resignation, but he has left us with a long record of his thought. We know what he thinks about the dictatorship of relativism, about the relationship between faith and reason, about the collapse of European culture, about the indissolubility of marriage, about intrinsically evil acts. It is simple enough to apply his thoughts—available in dozens of books and hundreds of documents—to contemporary debates. Yes, we know his thought very well.

However, Benedict XVI—as a theologian, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and especially as Successor to St. Peter—carefully avoided ideological positions. He sought always to convey the essence of the Catholic faith, without taking sides in debates that the Church has not resolved. As Gagliarducci puts it, “He always steered clear of easy counter-positions that biased the debates following the Second Vatican Council.” Regarding the Council itself, he insisted on a “hermeneutic of continuity;” he taught that any authentic Church teaching must be an organic development of what has gone before it.

So when anyone suggests a radical alteration in Catholic teaching, we need not look for subtle signals from Benedict. We already know what he thinks.

Gagliarducci goes on to observe that the reign of Pope Francis has seen an unhappy revival of the angry debates within the Church, pitting “liberal” against “conservative” factions. Hard-core ideologues were discouraged by Pope Benedict’s approach, Gagliarducci writes. “Under Pope Francis, they grabbed the occasion to retake the reins of the cultural debate.”

From the perspective of the ideologues, Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” is just one more rival mode of thought, which must be defeated. So the most enthusiastic supporters of Pope Francis profess their horror whenever Benedict makes any public statement. They, too, know what he thinks; they see implicit criticism when, for instance, he thanks Pope Francis for appointing Cardinal Robert Sarah.

The ideologues approach theological debates like political contests, and so they attack their rivals—not just disputing their ideas but impugning their motives and their faith. This explains the recent Civilta Cattolica assault on American conservatives; the essay is intended not merely to show flaws in the conservatives’ arguments but to depict them as dangerous, as enemies of the Pope and of the Catholic faith. The Civilta essay makes frequent use of the term “Manichean” to describe American conservatives. Gagliarducci sees a more appropriate use for that term in the tendency to demonize rivals: “And it is the current debate that is ‘Manichean’ by nature, as it depicts the Church as being divided between ‘pro-Francis’ and ‘anti-Francis’ parties.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 26, 2017 9:51 AM ET USA

    Popes B XVI and JP II have left a legacy of thought for us. Will the legacy of Francis be as good? All the liberal vs conservative talk is distracting us from the real issue. What would Jesus do?

  • Posted by: mark.f.santschi7460 - Jul. 25, 2017 11:06 PM ET USA

    The hermeneutics of suspicion.

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Jul. 25, 2017 11:26 AM ET USA

    The reaction to Benedict's words needs not come from a speculation on Benedict's thought the current situation in the Church, but instead as resonating with the listeners' thoughts on the current situation just the same. Consider an unhappy employee. After a particularly long day a friend at the pub says "you look tired". It rings true with the man as he reflects on just how tired he is with his career in general. The friend didn't mean it that deeply, but it has the deep meaning just the same.