Benedict XVI answers his critics—and drops a hint
Pope-emeritus Benedict has been scrupulously careful, these last five years, to avoid anything that could be construed as criticism of Pope Francis. At the same time, the former Pope has come under criticism—led by some of his greatest admirers—for a resignation that, in retrospect, seems to have plunged the Church into a grave crisis.
Now, in letters to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Benedict responds to his critics. But in the process, he comes closer than ever before to criticizing his successor. Let’s take a careful look at what the former Pope said.
As we do so, however, let’s bear two things in mind: First, these were private letters, written to an old friend. How they came into the possession of a German tabloid newspaper is, at least for now, an unsolved mystery. In any case they were not public statements. Second, the more recent letter was written nearly a full year ago—in November 2017—and so it cannot be read as a commentary on the current crisis at the Vatican. (More on that point below.)
Cardinal Brandmüller is one of the prelates who has expressed dismay about Benedict’s decision to resign, and the former Pope’s letter is addressed to that point. Benedict acknowledges the “deep-seated pain that the end of my papacy has inflicted on you and many others.” But—in a message that many of us should take to heart—he fears that the pain “has turned into an anger that no longer merely concerns my resignation, but increasingly also my person and my papacy as a whole.”
In his letters the former Pope is unmistakably challenging those—including Cardinal Brandmüller and, for that matter, this writer—who think he was wrong to resign. “If you know a better way,” he writes, “please tell me.” Certainly we do not know all the circumstances that prompted him to step down. Rather than criticizing his decision, he suggests to Cardinal Brandmüller, “Let us rather pray, as you did at the end of your letter, that the Lord will come to the aid of his Church.”
Bild, in the story making public the former Pope’s letters, reads that last phrase as an indication that Benedict perceives a crisis in the Church today. Frankly I think that is an unwarranted interpretation. Shouldn’t good Christians ask for the Lord’s help, even in the best of times?
But elsewhere Benedict does seem to allude to the crisis. (I am tempted to say the “current” crisis, but remember that the letter was written last year, before the furor that has arisen during the past several weeks.) He writes that because of unhappiness about his resignation, “a papacy itself is now being devalued and melted into the sorrow about the situation in which the Church currently finds herself.” Does that not sound like a recognition that the “the situation” warrants sorrow? The former Pope seems to be agreeing—in a private letter, not intended for public release—that something is seriously wrong.
In this letter Benedict, who has always been careful in his writing, conveys the clear impression that he thinks Cardinal Brandmüller has been unjust in criticizing his resignation. But there is not the slightest hint that he disagrees with the German cardinal—one of the signers of the dubia—about the crisis confronting the Church. And here, again, Benedict would be referring to the crisis that Cardinal Brandmüller saw in the teachings of Pope Francis, especially in Amoris Laetitia, since the Chile/McCarrick/Vigano crises had not yet erupted.
A New York Times report on Benedict’s letters has things exactly wrong, then. In its headline, the Times says that with these letters “Benedict Rebukes Critics of Pope Francis.” If there is any such rebuke in the correspondence, I don’t see it.
But the Times story goes further. Opening with a reference to the revelations of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, and then repeating the now-familiar canard that conservative Catholics are exploiting Vigano’s charges because they “pine for the pontificate of the previous pope,” reporter Jason Horowitz writes: “Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.”
We don’t know what Pope-emeritus Benedict thinks of the Vigano testimony; he has been conspicuously silent. But I feel quite confident in saying this much: In a letter dated November 2017, Benedict was not rebuking conservative Catholics for how they have behaved in September 2018.
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