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The Anatomy of a Rejection Letter: Some Personal Thoughts on the Benedict Correspondence

Yesterday, I wrote about what happened with the visually altered letter from Pope Benedict — the one the Vatican attempted manipulated to use as a marketing prop to promote an 11-volume series on the “theology” of Pope Francis. If you haven’t seen the facts of the case, read this first.

What I find particularly fascinating in all of this is just how much emotion this situation has stirred up. It’s indicative of both a profound rejection of the actions of the current pontificate, and a profound longing for what was lost from the papacy when Benedict abdicated. But I think we need to look more deeply at what happened, and what it means, because we really need to examine why it is that so many of us feel this way. The letter is really a tempest in a teapot, but it points the way to something much deeper that we need to confront.

First, lets cover the bases on what we think went down.

I’ll state here that from the outset, I believed that the letter most likely was real. Based on anecdotal observation, I think it’s fair to say I was in the minority on this,  but even the original excerpts just didn’t strike me as a phony. When the full text was revealed, it seemed more authentic — a balanced letter including both praise and a polite rejection of what was being asked would have made an underwhelming forgery. When it was discovered that they took the trouble to blur and blot out the bits they didn’t like in the promo photo, it erased most of my remaining doubt. Sorry friends, you just don’t go to the trouble of writing a mediocre fake, attributing it to someone of stature who still has access to important people in the outside world, photographing it, manipulating said photograph, and releasing it to the public. That’s a lot of effort to push out a counterfeit.

Those of us who are really suspicious might argue that yes, they would do all of this — as an elaborate ruse! — thereby giving the appearance that they messed up, that the letter is real but they didn’t want the less-than-awesome bits to get out, and then grudgingly conceding to the Associated Press that, “OK, fine, we really did try to cover up the parts we didn’t like”. That way, by faking that they were covering up the mild snub of an elderly former pope who is nearly blind in one eye and didn’t feel up to reading eleven volumes of theology, they lent credibility (because, as I said above, who would write a fake and then pretend to cover it up?) to what amounts to some pretty significant praise in the earlier parts of the letter.

That’s both convoluted and pretty far-fetched. Not impossible, but nothing we’ve seen says that the guys in Vatican Comms are up to that kind of game. They routinely bungle basic communications tasks. We’ve certainly not seen evidence that they are 7D chess players or psy-ops professionals. Also, too much could go wrong with a plan like this. The public, for example, isn’t exactly thrilled with the Vatican for the Photoshopping stunt, and the media is more upset with them than they already were because of the Barros case. This path just has too much liability for too little return.

The one thing I’ll concede that lends the ever-so-slightest bit of currency to the “we faked it and covered it up so you’d believe it’s real, har har har” theory is that they actually admitted their mistake when called out on it. The Vatican has not, of late, been in the habit of admitting much of anything. Still, with Benedict having access to journalists and high-ranking members of the curia who actually like him better than Francis, the potential that he’d simply find a way to deny he wrote this is too strong. It’s possible they admitted it because it was just. so. obvious. So, I’m keeping this theory in the “conceivable but highly improbable” category.

This is where people will start saying that Benedict must have some kind of a gun to his head so he’d never deny it because they’ll pull the trigger, and away into totally unprovable conspiracy land we go. I’ve heard lots of that kind of thing this week from the “Benedict is a prisoner held against his will” crowd. But as Hilary White wrote earlier this week:

I think it’s time to drive this home: Ratzinger isn’t coming to save us. He isn’t the pope. He wasn’t “coerced” into resigning. He hasn’t been intimidated into silence. All these people concocting hysterical fantasies about this have failed to do him the courtesy of taking him at his word. He has repeatedly told us, but we have continued to refuse to accept it.

We have to face some uncomfortable realities, not only about Joseph Ratzinger, but about ourselves. He was never a hero of orthodoxy. We were fooled. We bought the media propaganda. Maybe it’s wounded pride that keeps us trying to defend him. But it’s never a bad thing to apprehend truth, however belatedly or uncomfortable, or painful the implications.

Why did we think that Ratzinger, in this crucial role of CDF prefect, was a bulwark of orthodoxy? Is it simply that we have moved so far away from the ancient Faith that we no longer have a realistic notion of the Faith ourselves to make a comparison, to make an objective judgement?

… Perhaps the world of Catholic academic theology had become so corrupted that a man called “progressive” in 1963, but whose ideas remained the same, would look like a “champion of traditional Catholic orthodoxy” by 2005.

There’s nothing whatever to be gained by continuing to invest in this feminine Benedict-nostalgia. In fact, I would say that all this sighing and “Oh, I miss him” is a way of hiding from reality, clinging to a fantasy – not about him, but about ourselves: that we ourselves have become compromised, doctrinally. So much so that we can’t tell what a real “champion of Catholic orthodoxy” looks like.

To many good people — quite likely even some of you reading this now — these are fighting words. Simply because I continue to assert that a) Benedict most likely wrote this letter praising Francis and claiming continuity between their pontificates and b) Benedict bears a responsibility for what is happening now that he has a duty to confront, I have been blocked on Facebook, have lost financial supporters of this website, and have generally met with reactions varying from incredulity to accusations that I am falling prey to obvious lies to anger and accusations of disrespect.

These are not healthy reactions, in my opinion. Frank Walker at Canon 212 said that I had “slammed” Catholics who didn’t think the letter sounded like Benedict. If I did, it was the gentlest slam ever. I merely pointed out that there was a good bit of “there’s no way he wrote that and I refuse to believe it la la la” going on, with people sticking their fingers in their ears. And it is this kind of attachment we have to the idea of Benedict as a guy who would never go along with what’s happening really demands deeper consideration. Again, as Hilary said: “Maybe it’s wounded pride that keeps us trying to defend him. But it’s never a bad thing to apprehend truth, however belatedly or uncomfortable, or painful the implications.”

Something else Hilary has said for as long as I can remember — something I very much agree with — is that the Church couldn’t survive another “conservative” pontificate. The rot beneath the surface was merely papered over by the 21st century analog of authentic, rooted, traditional orthodoxy; by the trappings of office and the liturgical nostalgia of a pope like Benedict who nevertheless counted himself as among the theological revolutionaries who gave birth to the post-conciliar experiment — an experiment that has categorically and manifestly failed. Think of all the times you’ve heard people use the term “hermeneutic of continuity” in an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable things. That’s Ratzinger’s term. He is all about continuity over conflict. It was a central theme of his pontificate, and one many of us have spent time confronting as we evaluated the stark differences between the pre and post-conciliar Church. Which makes the idea that he would claim continuity with Francis pretty darn believable.

So, what do I think really happened with this letter? Well, my impression is something like this:

They sent the review copies of the books to Benedict — this is something that happens all the time with academics, writers, and people of stature. They send you free copies of a book in the hope that you’ll write a blurb, endorsement, or review. So they pass along this box set of Little Mister Theology books to Benedict with a little note request that he write something nice about them.

Being the nice guy that he is, he obliges. He looks them over, skims a few bits, decides that they are generally worthwhile, but not so much that he wants to read 11 volumes. He’s 91. His vision is seriously impaired. Reading that much is certainly going to run afoul of the physical limitations he’s still talking about. Perhaps he just doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps he wants to stay out of this pontificate as much as possible, just like he said. Doesn’t want to unduly influence things.

So he politely says no, but nevertheless praises the initiative and condemns that which it sets out to combat: the idea that Francis is an unqualified simpleton with no theological training, that he himself was an out of touch academic with no practical experience of the Christian life, and that both of their pontificates, however different they may look on the surface, are actually very much in continuity with each other.

Most likely, Benedict doesn’t think his letter will ever even be seen by anyone but the publisher, so he writes it in the manner of personal correspondence, not a formal, public proclamation.

Nothing about this strikes me as out of character for Benedict, or in any way indicative of a conspiracy.

From there, the Vatican publishing house decides to use what they can of his letter for marketing purposes. But I strangely find myself partially agreeing with the uber papal positivist Mike Lewis here. It’s not at all uncommon to take a sentence or two from a good review, slap some elipses and quotation marks on it, and use it to blurb a movie or a book. This is marketing and PR, folks: tell the good part of the story, gloss over the warts. Stupidly, though, the Vatican marketing team took a staged picture that intentionally occluded part of the letter, and they soft-focus blurred the part they couldn’t easily hide under a stack of books so that nobody would see it. Not because there was anything damning in Benedict’s rejection of the request — I strongly disagree that the full text of the letter significantly alters the meaning of the earlier excerpts — only because it distracted from the rather powerful praise he offered earlier in the letter.

It was stupid. It was, as a mode of professional communication to journalists, somewhat dishonest. For a Vatican that routinely lies and employs misdirection, it was another demerit on the credibility scale — especially when their M.O. is to say things like, “Oh, believe us, we’ve released the full text of the Third Secret of Fatima.” It was a needless (if small) deception that took another bite out of an already damaged brand.

But this thing that they’ve done is making people angry in a rather curious way. I don’t think so many people would be this angry if they had deceived us about something else. I think people are so upset because they’re looking for any reason they can to hold on to the idea that this is a forgery. I think they’re angry because they don’t want to believe that our beloved Benedict — the pope who got people receiving Communion on the tongue kneeling again and brought back the Traditional Latin Mass — could possibly think the pontificate of the worst pope in history is just hunky dory.

But it’s time we seriously consider the possibility that this is exactly what he thinks. That Benedict is the same sort of theological progressive he always said he was, only that he looks much more traditional in comparison to his contemporaries. That “your goodness in the my home and the place where I feel safe” might not have been uttered at gunpoint. That maybe Benedict and Francis really aren’t far apart on allowing Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and that Benedict may very well have played a role in the compromise that helped move the German-language group’s proposal through the Synod, later helping to open that door in Amoris Laetitia.

We have to seriously consider these things, to borrow a phrase from President Kennedy, “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Because “Truth”, as one of my college theology professors thundered one day, “doesn’t give a flying fig about how you’re feeling that morning.” Because there’s actual evidence out there that they might be true.

The crisis in the Church did not arrive on March 13, 2013. It was not something Francis cut from whole cloth. Its roots go deep, and it was over a century ago that Pope St. Pius X warned us it was coming, and that it would be an inside job. “For as We have said,” he wrote, “they [the Modernists] put their designs for her [the Church’s] ruin into operation not from without but from within; hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain, the more intimate is their knowledge of her.”

I think there are probably many examples of well-meaning and even truly pious men in the recent history of the Church who were nonetheless malformed in ways that led them to be unwitting contributors to the Church’s untoward trajectory. We are all products of the Modernism that infected the Church, one way or the other. We’ve all been influenced by it. It is therefore not our place to impugn motives, but we do need to understand, if possible, where things have gone awry.

We have arrived at a moment in history where wistful nostalgia about happier ecclesiastical times is not a luxury we can afford. We have to remain on alert. We must evaluate critically everything we have taken for granted. If we want to understand the disaster we are witnessing at present, we cannot avoid exploring the rabbit hole to see just how deep it goes, and who helped dig it.

We don’t have to like what we see, but we do have to confront it. Self-delusion is not an option.

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