Last night, I was having a chat with a Catholic friend. We were discussing something I had tweeted a couple of days ago:
I still can’t figure out how they haven’t figured out how problematic these optics are. https://t.co/4IEVLCfzDb
— Steve Skojec (@SteveSkojec) April 15, 2019
“It honestly baffles me,” my friend says. “I am very much of the mind that there should not be a Pope Emeritus who wears white and swans around the Vatican. But if there’s going to be, he should not be seen or heard. Ever.”
I said it would be nice, if he was going to insist on speaking, that he would talk about the big things only he can address: the fact that people need to stop thinking he’s still the pope (obviously, the clothes and intermittent appearances as a moral voice of the Church aren’t helping) and the disaster that has been left in the wake of his terrible decision to abdicate.
My friend disagreed. He said that no good could come of him speaking. That to address the first thing I had suggested would only result in more people thinking he’s still the pope, and to address the second would just result in a schism.
My friend also said that if he were the new pope and his predecessor were still around, his very first action would be to have a sit-down conversation with the guy “and explain to him that he was going to voluntarily renounce all titles and honors, turn in his white vestments and go to a monastery of his choice that he would never leave again.”
I conceded that there was a reason why Pope Celestine V got thrown in the slammer after he abdicated. Pope Boniface VIII didn’t need this kind of mess on his hands. Every other approach, I said, is a disaster.
And then my friend said something that only a child of a generation of broken families would think of: Benedict “basically functions like a weekend dad. He shows up and gets everybody excited and then just disappears again when it suits him.”
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote his letter on the sex abuse crisis, he was pulling the weekend dad card, and hard.
And apparently, the new stepdad isn’t pleased.
Eminent vaticanista Sandro Magister has written an interesting analysis of the circumstances surrounding the Benedict letter — and the not so quiet fallout it has produced. You should read the whole thing, but I’m going to highlight some of it here. Magister says there are “seven essential elements that have come into the open, which are to be kept in mind in view of future developments.”
The first is that Ratzinger — Magister refers to him as Ratzinger throughout the text, a rhetorical demotion I appreciate — says his “notes,” which later became his published essay, were written between the announcement of the sex abuse summit in September of 2018 and the opening day of that summit in February of this year.
Magister indicates that Benedict had intended his comments to go to the heads of the various episcopal conferences before the summit, as well as Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis.
“What happened however,” Magister writes, “is that none of the participants at the summit received Ratzinger’s text. Francis thought it better to keep it to himself, locked away in a drawer.”
And no one would have known anything about it if Ratzinger himself, about forty days later, had not decided to make it public, formally in a little-known Bavarian magazine, “Klerusblatt,” but practically in a dozen major publications, Catholic and not, all over the world and in several languages, after alerting the highest Vatican authorities to this, as he himself has revealed:
“Having contacted the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the Holy Father himself, it seemed appropriate to publish this text in the Klerusblatt.”
The second element, Magister notes, is the reception of the Vatican media to Ratzinger’s text. He describes this reaction as “frosty,” noting that both Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano gave it perfunctory attention while burying the story and offering no link to the full text.
“Since it is known how close the pope is,” Magister observes, “to the highest officials of the Vatican media — prefect of the dicastery for communication Paolo Ruffini and editorial director Andrea Tornielli, in addition to Fr. Spadaro — this chill in registering the publication of the text by Ratzinger cannot help but reflect strong irritation on the part of Francis.”
This, if true, explains something that had perplexed me. All the little Francis minions — faux theologians like Massimo Faggioli and Fr. James Martin, et al. — started complaining bitterly about the text almost as soon as it was released. I wondered why, if the thing were vetted, as Ratzinger’s comments about submitting it to Parolin and the pope beforehand seemed to indicate, they were all in a huff. If the boss says it’s OK, who are they to judge?
Was it controlled opposition? I wondered. I couldn’t see Ratzinger risking upsetting the pontiff by publishing something so anodyne without his go-ahead. But some journalists, like Phil Lawler and Francis X. Rocca, started asking almost immediately why it hadn’t come out through more official channels, and it appears they were onto something. Lawler also noticed the “frosty” reception from Vatican media right away, writing:
The silence of the official Vatican media is a clear indication that Benedict’s essay has not found a warm welcome at the St. Martha residence. Even more revealing is the frantic reaction of the Pope’s most ardent supporters, who have flooded the internet with their embarrassed protests, their complaints that Benedict is sadly mistaken when he suggests that the social and ecclesiastical uproar of the 1960s gave rise to the epidemic of abuse.
Magister also notes that Francis has been, as is his norm when he is “seriously put to the test,” fixated upon silence. “Not only practiced,” Magister notes, but “theorized” in his preaching:
In the homily for Palm Sunday, on April 14, the pope took as a basis for comparison the “silence of Jesus throughout his Passion,” a silence that “overcomes the temptation to answer back, to act like a ‘superstar’.” Because “in moments of darkness and great tribulation, we need to keep silent, to find the courage not to speak, as long as our silence is meek and not full of anger. The meekness of silence will make us appear even weaker, more humble. Then the devil will take courage and come out into the open.”
In other words: “Shut up,” he explained.
Magister says he believes there is a “radically negative judgment that Pope Francis has developed on the publication of Ratzinger’s ‘notes'” — but also that “Francis is keeping this judgment of his to himself.”
Instead, he is deploying one of his signature tactics: speaking through proxies.
“The striking vocal harmony,” Magister writes, “of persons very close to him allows an interpretation of what he thinks.” He points to the tweets issued by close papal ally Stefania Falsaca accusing the former pope “of having violated two requirements that the 2004 directory ‘Apostolorum Successores‘ imposed on all bishops emeritus: ‘not to interfere in any way’ with the reigning bishop, and not to ‘even hint at some kind of parallel authority.'”
An article by new Vatican Insider director Domenico Agasso, described by Magister as “a reporter very close to Santa Marta,” also maintains that “the publication of the ‘notes’ has broken an equilibrium between the two popes, and that this has even come to ‘a fracture.'”
Magister cites another article, this time by Faggioli, that “reiterates the same concept.” Faggioli, he says, is “convinced that ‘the problem is raised of regulating the figure of the [pope] emeritus for the future’ and that in the meantime, at present, it is necessary that Benedict XVI ‘remain invisible.'”
The penultimate element, in Magister’s analysis, is the intervention of Ratzinger’s former student, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who said in an April 15 interview with La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana’s editor, Riccardo Cascioli, that “they want to silence Benedict XVI because he is telling the truth.”
Magister says that throughout his interview, Müller defends the freedom of the pope emeritus to speak the truth. “When it comes to doctrine, morality, faith, they [bishops emeriti] are obligated to speak by divine law,” the ex-prefect of the CDF tells Cascioli. “All have promised during episcopal consecration to defend the ‘depositum fidei.’ The bishop and great theologian Ratzinger has not only the right but also the duty to speak and give testimony of revealed truth.”
Müller also takes a pointed swing at the pope’s pet excuse of “clericalism” as the cause of ecclesiastical sexual abuse. Asked what he thinks the consequences of Ratzinger’s letter will be, he responds: “I hope that some will finally begin to address the problem of sexual abuse in a clear and correct way. Clericalism is a false response.”
The final element of the story, Magister says, is the visit of Francis to Benedict for the occasion of his 92nd birthday, and for Easter greetings, from which the photo at the top of this article was taken.
Magister notes that at the same time that visit was transpiring, a front-page editorial at L’Osservatore Romano from Andrea Tornielli insisted “on the harmonious appeal of the two popes — in the major documents of the respective pontificates and most recently also in the ‘notes’ — to prayer, penance, and the conversion of hearts as the master path for overcoming the scandal of abuse.”
But despite the appearance of a “truce,” Magister observes, “not a single word from Francis and his spokesmen on the contents of Ratzinger’s ‘notes’ concerning the ultimate root of the scandal.”
The two popes, in Magister’s analysis, are out of sync. And though their divergence appears less drastic than many would like to believe, if Ratzinger really did an end run around the Vatican establishment to make his thoughts known, that’s a bold move and an interesting development.
I just wish that if he were going to take such a risk, it would have been in the attempt of more than a glancing blow. Nevertheless, this development is one to keep an eye on. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot less from Ratzinger from here on out.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.