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Pope Francis on Benedict’s Abdication and “Ultra-Conservatives”

Photo credit: AFP / Alberto Pizzoli, via La Nacion.

On 3 July, the Argentine newspaper La Nacion published an interview with Pope Francis which took place on 28 June (the same day that Pope Benedict celebrated the 65th anniversary of his own priesthood). In it, Pope Francis speaks mainly of Argentine topics. Near the end, however, he comments on two important matters which are pertinent to the current situation in the Church. First, he describes how he deals with the alleged “ultra-Conservatives” in the Church; secondly, he describes the putatively “revolutionary” conduct of Pope Benedict himself.

When asked how he was getting along with the “ultra-Conservatives,” Pope Francis – without challenging this depreciative description of the ostensibly orthodox part of the prelates – claims that “they say ‘no’ to everything” in relation to his own proposed reforms. As reported by La Nacion, he more specifically says:

“They do their work, I do mine. I want an open and understanding Church which accompanies the wounded families. They say ‘no’ to everything. I continue my path without being sidetracked. I do not behead people [sic]. I never have liked it. Let me repeat: I reject conflict.” He [Pope Francis] concluded with a conspicuous smile: “You remove a nail by applying pressure upwards. Or you tranquilize them, put them to the side, when they reach retirement age.” [emphasis added]

These words used by Pope Francis here are quite stunning, since they might well have been coarsely spoken by an old sailor or by a Mafia boss, rather than by a Supreme (Merciful) Pastor of the Catholic Church. His allusion to decapitation – or the “lopping off of heads” – should not even come into the mind or mouth of a pope, much less be expressed flippantly and publicly. (Was he then thinking of ISIS?)

As to his pontifical predecessor, Pope Francis also seems to enter once more into the discussion initially raised by Archbishop Georg Gänswein with regard to the specific remaining role of Pope Benedict as a retired pope, to include a more abiding contemplative “petrine role.” Pope Francis first tersely says about Pope Benedict: “He has trouble getting around, but his head and memory are intact, perfect.”

When asked about his own opinion concerning Pope Benedict,  he says:

He was a revolutionary. In the meeting with cardinals, shortly before the March 2013 Conclave, he told us that one of us was going to be the next pope and that he did not know his name. His generosity was unparalleled. His resignation brought to light all of the Church’s problems. His resignation had nothing to do with personal issues. It was an act of government – his last act of government. [emphasis added]

These few comments, however, raise further questions and speculations as to why, then, Pope Benedict had finally chosen to resign, if not for personal reasons; and also as to how his resignation “brought to light all of the Church’s problems.” These questions were not raised in the rest of the interview, however. Does this imply, for example, that his resignation was due to an overwhelming amount of corruption among prelates which Pope Benedict was not able to limit, much less to clear out? Nonetheless, the terse comments do make it clear that Pope Francis continues to praise Pope Benedict for his abdication, and he even now calls him a “revolutionary” for having done so. Moreover, by insisting that Pope Benedict’s last act of government was his resignation, Pope Francis also seems to try to limit further speculation about Pope Benedict’s continued “petrine ministry.”

In light of such abrupt and confusing messages in this informal interview – and by way of contrast – it is encouraging to read Cardinal Carlo Caffarra’s recent limpid and warmly spoken words in Bologna about being pastoral, and about the importance of a knowledge of a fuller Catholic doctrine. As reported on 17 June by the Italian website Italia Oggi, Cardinal Caffarra said in his own former Diocese of Bologna, and at a public presentation of a book about Cardinal Giacomo Biffi (d. 2015): “a Church which is poorer in doctrine is not more pastoral, but only more ignorant.” Caffarra received, according to the report, significant spontaneous applause. Caffarra also said that such a weakening of the Church’s doctrine will make one “more subject to the powerful pressure of the moment.” The Italian website characterizes these statements of the cardinal as “a challenge to the Church of Bergoglio.” Moreover, with reference to the recently deceased Cardinal Biffi – also formerly the Cardinal-Archbishop of Bologna – Caffarra recounts that it was Biffi’s “principal responsibility” to “proclaim the splendor of truth to all – including Muslims.” The cardinal’s clear statements might also be understood  as a polite and manfully indirect comment upon the Francis pontificate.

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