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Benedict Lettergate Offers Glimpse of a Papacy on the Ropes

The story about the letter from Pope Benedict to Msgr. Viganò (see here, herehere, and here for our coverage) has, as new deceptions have come to light piecemeal over the past week, grown from something seemingly insignificant into an enormous embarrassment for the Holy See.

It has become emblematic of the mess within the Church, and as the snowball appears at last to have stopped rolling, I’d like to take one last look at what we can learn from the debacle.

Depending which side of the issue one finds themselves on, the letter appears either to vindicate Francis, or Benedict. Or neither. Or both. I think like so much in the present pontificate, the letter is something of a Rorschach test. We look at it, and we manage to see a reflection of our own mind.

In the latest development — and hopefully the last one — we learned that even in the “full” text of the letter that was eventually made public, an entire section was omitted. On Saturday, we at last had the opportunity to see what that bit contained. We at last have what we believe — though who could ever be certain at this point? — is the full text of the letter, with the section that was missing emphasized in bold. The translation was provided by Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register:

Benedictus XVI

Pope Emeritus

Most Reverend Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò

Prefect of the Secretariat for Communications

Vatican City

February 7, 2018


Most Reverend Monsignor,

Thank you for your kind letter of 12 January and the attached gift of the eleven small volumes edited by Roberto Repole.

I applaud this initiative that wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation, while I have been only a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today.

The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament.

However, I don’t feel like writing a short and dense theological passage on them because throughout my life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books I had read really well. Unfortunately, if only for physical reasons, I am unable to read the eleven volumes in the near future, especially as other commitments await me that I have already made.

Only as an aside, I would like to note my surprise at the fact that among the authors is also Professor Hünermann, who during my pontificate had distinguished himself by leading anti-papal initiatives. He played a major part in the release of the “Kölner Erklärung”, which, in relation to the encyclical “Veritatis splendour”, virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope, especially on questions of moral theology. Also the “Europaische Theologengesellschaft”, which he founded, was initially conceived by him as an organization in opposition to the papal magisterium. Later, the ecclesial sentiment of many theologians prevented this orientation, allowing that organization to become a normal instrument of encounter among theologians.

I am sure you will understand my refusal and I offer you cordial greetings.


Benedict XVI

So how, exactly, does the addition of this paragraph change the context of the letter? It is difficult to provide a simple answer. Some think it drastically alters the tone; others believe — as I do — that the concern over a particular contributor to the text as an aside only makes the rather strong praise for the initiative offered by Benedict to be even more bizarre.

Pope Benedict appears to have a problem with the presence of Hünermann as a contributor for the reasons he states — reasons dating back decades. Hünermann’s role in the release of the “Kölner Erklärung” (Cologne Declaration), which criticized John Paul II took place in 1989 — the same year the “Europaische Theologengesellschaft” (European Society for Catholic Theology) was founded.

But I too, would like to note my surprise at the appearance of Professor Hünermann in a papal text. In this case, however, it is not the work about the theology of Francis, but instead a book by Pope Benedict himself. For some reason, Hünermann was one of two editors of record for the 2005 German edition of God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office by none other than Pope Benedict XVI. Several years later, the book was translated and published in English by Ignatius Press — retaining Hünermann’s editorial credit and his signature on the introduction. Depending on which edition one looks at for the English text, the publication dates range from 2007 to 2009, all of which coincided with Benedict’s time in the papal officeSurely, if he had such strong objections to a pope being associated with the anti-papalist Hünermann, there was no better time to have made them known than when his own book was published:

Hünermann was also a listed co-author of the book’s introduction:

I must not be alone in finding this a little odd.

Not mentioned by Benedict in his note of concern to Viganò, but certainly deserving of attention, is the fact that Hünermann — who met with Pope Francis in May of 2015, in the midst of the two synods — has, according to Grant Kaplan at Commonweal, “exercised a seismic theological impact that stretches all the way to Francis’s much-debated Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.” In fact, writes Kaplan, it was

Hünermann’s work that has helped provide a theological justification for the pope’s insistence that the sacrament of marriage be understood in less legalistic terms. According to Hünermann, certain medieval reflections on the theology of marriage recognized that not all sacramental marriages were indissoluble in the way that indissolubility came to be understood in the modern period. The church should reclaim that understanding.

If Benedict had a problem with that particular contribution of Hünermann, one might reasonably have expected its inclusion in his letter. It is therefore somewhat noteworthy by its omission.

Whatever we are to make of all of this — and it’s really difficult to say what, exactly, we should make of it — the objection by Benedict to Hünermann’s work as a contributor to these volumes on Francis strikes a discordant note with the reality of Hünermann’s presence as a primary editor of one of Ratzinger’s own books.

If reaching a conclusion about Benedict’s mind in this whole affair is shrouded in a jumble of subjective interpretations, ascertaining Monsignor Viganò’s place in the affair is a much easier task.

In a piece at La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana*, Editor Riccardo Cascioli takes aim at Viganò for his cringeworthy handling of the whole affair, and he doesn’t hold back:

One letter, the letter of Benedict XVI, we have finally succeeded in reading in its entirety. Now we are still missing two letters: the one sent on January 12 by Monsignor Dario Viganò to Benedict XVI, which provoked the response which we have seen. And next, another letter by Monsignor Viganò, in which he submits his irrevocable resignation. We don’t have this last letter yet, but it cannot wait – because it is unthinkable that he could remain calmly in his position after the terrible international loss of face he has caused [for the Vatican].

He spoke falsely about the origin of the letter, he tried to hide two different parts of it, he re-touched a photo of it, he tried to circumvent the Pope-emeritus, he exposed the Church to ridicule. What more does he have to do to be considered unworthy of remaining in such a sensitive role for the mission of the Church? The scandal he has caused has clearly demonstrated the total inadequacy of Monsignor Viganò to fulfill that role. How could he still have even the tiniest bit of moral authority in working with the Vatican communications team which is under his direction? And how could the Italian and foreign journalists accredited to the Vatican be able to still have confidence in someone who did not hesitate to falsify documents and a photo for the sake of his own ideological motivations?

Cascioli continues:

Although it is right for Msgr. Viganò to answer personally for what happened on this occasion, the affair ought to lead to a wider reflection on the communication system of this pontificate, above all on the papal Court where spokespersons and official interpreters of the thought of Pope Francis abound. All together they have created a false image of a super-hero Pope, of a man who is fighting alone against the Church which remains set against him; they have mocked and ridiculed all those who have simply tried to ask questions or expressed perplexity about certain aspects of the Pontificate.

At his blog, the English Priest Fr. John Hunwicke echoes some of Cascioli’s sentiments:

[I]n my country, an episode like this would, beyond any possibility of doubt, have ended up with a resignation or sacking in a context of public disgrace. Will any of my fellow-countrymen contradict me in my assertion?

Perhaps that will indeed be how this episode will end up. We shall see.

If this man Vigano were to be kept in office, it would be the final detail in the unfolding public demonstration of the moral corruption right at the heart of this failed pontificate. In politics, it is often not the big issues that bring a crisis to its head, but something that starts off by being insignificant to the point of pettiness. During this Bergoglian era, the two major disasters have been the shiftiness, accompanied by unbecoming bluster, in the area of paedophilia and coverups and cronyism; and attempts to get away with perverting the Church’s moral teaching by stealth. Those things matter infinitely more than the current silly and minor episode.

But ‘Lettergate’ provides such a vivid snapshot of dirty little men involved in dirty little plots for thoroughly dirty purposes. Even anti-Ratzinger veterans among the Commentariat like Robert Mickens are saying that Vigano should resign or be sacked.

If PF cannot be made to understand the need to clean out his own Augean Stables, surely he should be made to go. Not next week, but this week.

“Failed Pontificate”. A pope who “should be made to go”. More and more, we see such sentiments rising to the surface in the wake of Francis’s ever-more-frequent missteps.

Austrian commentator Armin Schwibach wrote, at**, that the media was complicit in the debacle, noting that more than twenty journalists were present at the reading original reading of Benedict’s full letter by Msgr. Viganò. “It is true,” writes Schwibach, “the Vatican Media Secretariat favored this situation with the help of its set up and manipulated photo. But: there were, after all, more than 20 journalists present who all heard the reading of the second paragraph, and nevertheless…” He leaves the conclusion unstated. The reader should have no trouble filling in the gap.

Schwibach also notes that

Much energy was used for this fake construction which of course raises the question about the compentence of certain persons. And: in a hierarchical monarchy with a head who is known for his decisiveness, autocratic and authoritarian traits, such a procedure presents itself of course in an even darker light. One cannot get rid of the impression that with such dubious methods a fortress is being secured which is about to break apart at all ends and corners. It should not be in the interests of the pope to be ‘supported’ by such omissions and manipulations. But, unfortunately, that is the case in the ‘neo-Church’: the truth has been placed within parentheses.

Ross Douthat headlined his New York Times column last Sunday with a simple observation: “Pope Francis is beloved. His papacy might be a disaster.” The essay, adapted from his forthcoming book, does not touch on the “lettergate” question, looking instead more broadly at the differing impressions of the papacy coming from those outside the Church (generally favorable) and those within (typically more critical). It’s a wide-ranging piece, touching broadly on a number of key issues, but it finds sharper focus in its conclusion: “to choose a path that might have only two destinations — hero or heretic — is also an act of presumption, even for a pope. Especially for a pope.”

Again and again, we hear this papacy described in terms of its autocracy, its disregard for rules, and its reckless, careening momentum along the edge of total destruction in the pursuit of risky, agenda-driven reform. A “failed pope” who allows “fake construction” of news to suit his agenda giving an impression that “a fortress is being secured which is about to break apart at all ends and corners”? These are not terms of endearment, or of even basic confidence in the competence of a leader or the institution he leads.

Taken in the context of the lettergate scandal, what conclusions may we draw from this?

First, it seems that the Vatican still believes that they control their own message in a way they clearly do not. Long-time Vatican watchers have told me that this is a particular blindspot in Rome: the arrogance of thinking that the truth is whatever the Holy See says it is; nothing more, nothing less. Watching the credibility of this story crumble, fall into the light, and crumble again as new details emerge is enlightening. One Vatican observer in Rome told me early last year that there’s a feeling that nobody working for the Holy See is accountable to anyone but Francis, and that it has made think they are unstoppable. This episode has demonstrated how self-deluded such a philosophy is, and how unsustainable.

In all of this, I can’t help but have the feeling that Francis is shrinking before our eyes. That his pontificate, which was as brash as a bull in a China shop and drew all eyes to him, is suddenly so precarious that it has withdrawn from its usual braggadocio in search of a more conservative and measured tone. Suddenly, Pope Francis is saying Catholic things again, for example, his recent statement that Catholics in mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion. Such a statement might have impressed the faithful a few years ago, but one wonders if he really believes we do not perceive the irony that it was made by the chief ecclesiastical advocate for the reception of Holy Communion by adulterers.

Author, journalist, and veteran Vatican watcher Antonio Socci also sees the change in tactic, observing that Francis is “clumsily seeking legitimacy from that Wojtylian and Ratzingerian Church that he and his court have bombarded for five years with all the controversial artillery.” Socci notes that Francis even visted Pietrelcina last Saturday, to “pay homage to the most traditional saint” — Padre Pio — a saint who, Socci contests, Francis would otherwise categorize as “most rigid and conservative”.

There is a certain desperation evident in all these transparently calculated set pieces. It is perhaps most evident in those periodic attempts — most recently by the inartful manipulation of the Benedict letter — to co-opt the popularity of the papacy’s frail, elderly, hidden-from-view, former occupant. Benedict was far from a universally popular figure in his day, but he is infinitely more appealing by comparison, and as the Bergoglian regime surveys the damage it has wrought, rather than attempting to fix what they’ve broken, they appear content to attempt to borrow credibility wherever they can find it. In this case, they have sought to hollow out the image of Pope Benedict and wear the carcass as a disguise. Even they must recognize that such an obvious gambit won’t work for long, which raises the question: how little time do they think they need to finish their unpleasant work of “irreversible reform“?

The conclusion to Cascioli’s piece indicates that he also sees the brutish and short-lived utility of such a tactic:

For some time there has been in motion a systematic operation of dismantling the Magisterium of the preceding popes, from liturgy to morality, from the sacraments to social doctrine, except for when they seek to forcibly “use” the preceding popes to legitimize the present changes. The “Viganò affair,” with all of its gaffes, is only the tip of the iceberg.

But what of Benedict?

Socci proposes that there is a key phrase in the letter that we should take note of: “interior continuity”. He writes, “it suggests that we do not see external continuity in the acts and teachings” of the two pontificates.

I would agree that there is a meaningful contrast between interior and exterior continuity, though I interpret this meaning differently. Obviously, there’s very little exterior continuity in “style and temperament” — those were the words Benedict used — between the two pontificates. The two men could hardly be more different in personality or comportment, and Bergoglio’s penchant for self-aggrandizing theatrics of humility and down-to-earthiness (as long as the cameras are rolling) are probably the most striking departure from Benedict’s genuine humility and willingness to allow his own personality to fade behind the trappings and duties of the office as he understands it. For Bergoglio, the papacy is the means to the end of his personal agendas; for Ratzinger, it is a sacred office which he appears never to have felt adequate to inhabit. But the question remains: how different are their theological outlooks?

I remain wary, as we attempt to assess such questions, of confirmation bias. Traditionalists, who are accustomed to looking at the post-conciliar papacies with a critical eye, may have led the charge against the Bergoglian pontificate, but I would argue that at this moment, its strongest resistance is found amongst those who see it as a rejection of the work of John Paul II and Benedict — the very popes Socci argues Francis is now trying superficially to co-opt. These people — people who are otherwise completely at ease with the new liturgy, the post-conciliar experiment, the alterations to classical Catholic theology, and so on — would make this a war between personalities, between the “celebrity popes”, rather than a conflict between the teachings of the popes of modernity and those of the unbroken line of their predecessors stretching back across the centuries. The theologies of Benedict and Francis may not appear, on the surface, to have much in common, but they have a good deal more in common than either of them are likely to have with, say, Pope St. Pius X. And it is in this sense that I think Benedict was being sincere when he spoke of an “interior continuity” between their two pontificates.

Socci, who continues to argue that Benedict is still the pope, of course manages to find in this episode confirmation for his thesis. He sees what he wants to see in a letter that is really not all that informative at all, interpreting sarcasm and indignation into the former pope’s refusal to review the books on his successor’s theology, calling his response “polemical”, and his praise merely a “courtesy” that should be “reinterpreted in the light of the omitted passages”.

Another source who formerly worked for the Holy See used the same word. Courtesy. He told me that there is a way in which these sorts of formal letters follow an expected “courtesy” that says all sorts of nice-sounding things while really saying nothing, and that this is what he saw in Benedict’s letter — a “pro forma” bit of positivity about Francis followed by some specific criticisms.

I find it difficult to accept that a man like Benedict, who is beloved for his moral stature, would resort to polite lies so strongly worded that they could be used as marketing copy, while he buries his criticisms in verbal camouflage that seems directed everywhere but at the problem — Francis himself.

And this brings us back to the Rorschach test, which we examine in order to find something we already believe. For my part, I think I still held out hope that Benedict could have taken a real stand, casting aside empty flattery for the harder path of Christian duty. I can’t say I was expecting him to play the diplomatic game — displaying obsequient politeness in lieu of honest concern — only that I was sadly unsurprised by it, because it follows a pattern.

That’s why I always believed that the letter was real. That’s why I still believe he meant the positive things that he said. Because either he’s the good man everyone believes him to be, or he’s a pusillanimous flatterer at a moment that calls for direct confrontation. He can’t be both. Believing he meant what he said, in my mind at least, speaks more highly of his character than the alternative. He might be wrong, but at least he isn’t a liar — and doesn’t charity demand that we believe that?

In conclusion, I continue to look for any sign that Benedict is, in fact, troubled by the Francis papacy. I keep my ears perked for some little report, even off-the-record, of consternation from the people who go in to see him. I keep a lookout for some word or sign of contradiction, however small. I have not found one. I have heard from people who believe that he is not happy, but they have provided no evidence for this impression. In the end, we can take all of this no further than speculation, and I don’t like speculation. I’d rather know facts. Sadly, facts about what’s going on in Rome are a luxury we haven’t been afforded in quite some time.

Whatever the case, Benedict is no longer the pope, and yet Francis seems desperately to need his approval. A papacy that can’t stand on its own is a troubled papacy indeed.

UPDATE: Via Maike Hickson, we had reached out to Peter Hünermann (in German) to ask about his work on the Ratzinger book, and any thoughts he might want to share about this controversy. We also asked if the book was published with Benedict’s permission. Today, we received the following reply:

“Dear Mrs. Hickson,

I am the editor of the book series ‘Quaestiones disputatae‘. The rights of the book series are with the Herder publishing house. After the election of Pope Benedict, the publishing house and I decided to publish in one volume these texts which Ratzinger had earlier published in this book series.

Peter Hünermann”

He provided no further insight into the other questions asked, so we are left to speculate whether the work was, as sounds plausible, published without Benedict’s knowledge or consent. He also did not comment on Benedict’s recent criticism. If in fact the work was simply published in order to capitalize on the election of Ratzinger to the papacy without requiring his sign off, it would explain the apparent contradiction.


*Italian translations provide by Giuseppe Pellegrino.

**German translations provided by Maike Hickson.

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