Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Did Benedict’s death lift restraints on Pope Francis?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 03, 2024

Last week when I compiled my list of the top 20 news stories of 2023, I consciously passed over the death of Pope Benedict XVI, since he died on December 31, the final day of the previous year. But now as I reflect on the past year, I suspect that the death of the “Pope Emeritus” had an enormous impact on Vatican policies in the months that followed.

When he announced his resignation, Pope Benedict pledged his unswerving loyalty and obedience to his successor, and throughout the coming years he honored that promise. He never spoke a word of public criticism of Pope Francis; he never complained about the new policies that undermined his legacy. On the contrary, whenever he spoke of Pope Francis, Benedict expressed gratitude for his personal kindness.

Nevertheless, the mere presence of the former Pontiff inside the walls of the Vatican was widely seen as a restraint on Pope Francis. Although Benedict would not utter a word of criticism, his occasional public statements, though always carefully measured, sometimes contrasted sharply with those of Francis. And while he was mostly silent after his retirement, he had left a very full account of his thoughts before he stepped down. Everyone knew what the former Pope thought, and everyone could make an informed guess, at least, about what Benedict thought of his successor’s statements and policies.

Thus even in his silent retirement, the Pope Emeritus was available as a standard for comparison with Pope Francis. Admirers of the retired Pontiff could and did say that Pope Benedict would never have said X, would never have done Y. And there was always the possibility, however remote, that if Francis crossed some line—if he was too bold in his departures from Catholic tradition—Benedict would break from his self-imposed silence and protest. Such an overt conflict between two Popes—even with one having renounced his authority—could have provoked a crisis in the Church.

On December 31, 2022, that possibility ceased to exist. The Pope Emeritus was no longer available as a measuring-rod by which Pope Francis could be judged, no longer a rallying-point for critics of the current pontificate. And whether or not his absence emboldened his successor, it is unquestionably true that in 2023 Pope Francis was markedly more aggressive in pushing for changes in the Church.

To be fair, Pope Francis has never publicly criticized his predecessor. But he has been very restrained in his praise for Pope Benedict, often stressing the former Pope’s humility and lauding him for his resignation. Shortly after Benedict’s death, Francis described him as a “master of catechesis”—faint praise for the most accomplished theologian ever to occupy Peter’s Throne.

Indeed the funeral for Pope Benedict (which did occur in 2023) was a very quiet ceremony. Since there was no precedent for a Vatican funeral for a retired Pontiff, Pope Francis was able to set the rules for a “solemn but simple” ceremony, not inviting official delegations from other countries. In his brief homily at the funeral Mass, the Pope said nothing about his predecessor’s virtues or his contributions to the Church; he only mentioned Benedict’s name once, in the last line of his remarks. Peter Seewald, the German journalist who cooperated with Pope Benedict on several books, remarked that the homily was “as cold as the whole ceremony.”

A year later, the determination of Pope Francis to brush aside his predecessor’s legacy can be seen more clearly. Seewald recently complained that Francis “has erased much of what was precious and clear to Ratzinger.” The most obvious repudiation, of course, was Traditionis Custodes, scuttling Benedict’s hope that the Novus Ordo and the traditional Latin Mass could both profit from “mutual enrichment.” Seewald reports that the Pope Emeritus was “stabbed in the heart” by that document, which caught him by surprise—he only learned about it from press reports.

Then there was the heavy-handed move by Pope Francis to order Archbishop Georg Gänswein to leave Rome, without any new ecclesial assignment, so that the former Pope’s private secretary was effectively exiled to Germany, where he described himself as “looking for work.”

And now an Italian insider reports from Rome that Pope Francis has ordered the removal of Benedict’s coat of arms from the liturgical vestments from the past pontificate. If it is true—and I should emphasize that I have not confirmed the report—this would be another unprecedented step to erase his predecessor’s legacy.

As recently as a few months ago I would have been inclined to doubt this new report. But as I remarked in November, I have learned from experience not to underestimate this Pope’s determination to punish those he perceives as his rivals, dead or alive.

This pontificate began with a report (again unconfirmed, but widely circulated and never denied) that before stepping out on the loggia of St. Peter’s for the first time, Pope Francis had made a caustic remark: “The carnival is over!” Since that time—but most noticeably in 2023—Pope Francis has worked systematically to undo what Pope Benedict had done.

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.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 09, 2024 5:16 AM ET USA

    Respect for the Petrine office does not require that one recognize the bad character and actions of its current tenant.

  • Posted by: Sciamej1913 - Jan. 06, 2024 12:34 PM ET USA

    It is so disheartening to hear and read of all this related to the current Holy father. What is the "why" of it? What does he gain, but his agenda only.to undo all the good that his predecessor did, and whose spirit enlivens many of us even in his demise. Yes, we must pray, pray for the Holy Father so that when he asks us to pray for him, he really must mean it and needs it. All I know, and I know it for sure form so many I hear from, they all agree - enough, enough of the dismantling!

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Jan. 06, 2024 3:04 AM ET USA

    Pope Chaos and Confusion has shown himself to be a petty, spiteful and vindictive man. He is unfit to hold such a high office. Good luck trying to change Christ's teachings, Christ has already promised us the gates of Hell will not prevail.