The Vatican published parts of a letter from Pope Benedict this week, and the Catholic world suddenly lost its mind.
The reason? Because the letter said that “Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation” and that the 11-volume theological work on the theology of the pope “help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates” of Francis and Benedict.
Almost immediately, people concerned by the disaster of the present pontificate began calling the letter a fake.
“Thirty five years,” wrote one breathless Catholic on Twitter, “of reading, analysing and writing about the works of Joseph Ratzinger provides more than enough experience to know he would never resort to such trite inchoate Bergoglian banalities inherent in that letter”. It was a sentiment echoed across social media.
Others speculated about Benedict being a “prisoner” of the Vatican, of the “evil underground of…inernationalists with money and power” responsible for a coup that brought Benedict out of power, and so on. The name of George Soros appeared at least once in my feeds in connection with the latest developments.
Essentially, every unproven theory people have had about why Benedict abdicated, who was behind it, and what he’s now being forced to do has come back to the surface with a vengeance — all in the wake of a simple, brief letter about some books that, as it turns out, the former pope doesn’t even have the time to read.
And that last part is where the story gets interesting. At first, the letter was simply read at the presentation of the books on the theology of Pope Francis by Msgr. Viganò of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, and excerpts were shared without the full text. Some reports say only parts of the letter were read at the presentation, others that it was read it in its entirety. The letter from Benedict, along with the books, appeared in a promotional photo sent to the media on Monday, March 12. Take a look and see if you see anything odd:
The first thing you’ll notice is that the stack of books, on the right, are covering all but the signature of the former pope. There is clearly some text there – we can see the words “la saluto” above the signature line, but that’s all.
But what people did not immediately notice — largely because soft focus around the edges of a photo is a common stylistic technique — is that the two bottom lines of the first page of the letter are blurred to the point that they are not readable.
When Sandro Magister released the full text of the letter, we were given to understand what is being hidden by clever staging and the application of some Photoshop filters. With the real text beside the image, one can make out the shape of the words, “Tuttavia non mi sento di scrivere su di essi una breve e densa pagina teologica perché in tutta la mia vita è sempre stato chiaro che…”
It is the opening line of a paragraph which reads, in English:
Nonetheless, I do not feel that I can write a brief and dense theological page about them because for my whole life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books that I had also truly read. Unfortunately, even if only for physical reasons, I am not able to read the eleven little volumes in the near future, all the more so in that I am under other obligations to which I have already agreed.
Despite what nevertheless amounts to fairly hearty endorsement of Francis, the former pope was evidently demurring on a request made that he write something of more significance about the new set of theological texts, saying that he hasn’t had time to thoroughly read the books he’s being asked to help promote, and due to limitations of health and time, doesn’t plan to.
This is hardly a devastating letdown for Vatican PR. The two preceding paragraphs should have sufficed. Nevertheless, someone in the Vatican Secretariat for Communications apparently thought that Benedict’s strongly positive words about his successor weren’t unequivocal enough, and so the photo was doctored, and the less-than-emphatic section physically covered up.
The even more surprising thing is that the Vatican has admitted it. They have conceded that they violated what the Associated Press called, in a report on this story published today, “strict standards that forbid digital manipulation of photos” — standards followed by “most independent news media” .
The Vatican admitted Thursday that it blurred the two final lines of the first page where Benedict begins to explain that he didn’t actually read the books in question. He wrote that he cannot contribute a theological assessment of Francis as requested by Vigano because he has other projects to do.
The Vatican didn’t explain why it blurred the lines other than to say it never intended for the full letter to be released.
Not long ago, my home was broken into by someone known to our family while we were out of town. We had an immediate suspicion, and an arrest was made, which resulted in confession. When asked why he did it, the young man apparently tried to explain, among other poorly-thought-out reasons, that he “didn’t think he would be caught” — as though this somehow mitigated the stupidity of what he did. (You will be unsurprised to learn that this reasoning did not keep him from being convicted and serving time for his actions.)
Essentially, that’s what the Vatican is saying here: “We didn’t plan to release the entire letter, so we didn’t think we’d get caught attempting to mislead the public.” But they were caught, and they’ve damaged their credibility yet again with a once-friendly secular media:
The missing content significantly altered the meaning of the quotes the Vatican chose to highlight, which were widely picked up by the media. Those quotes suggested that Benedict had read the volume, agreed with it and given it his full endorsement and assessment. The doctoring of the photo is significant because news media rely on Vatican photographers for images of the pope at events that are closed to independent media.
There is nothing new in a story about the Vatican lying to the public. We’ve written about this before, here and here and probably other places besides. It is a tragically common theme, and one that has quite serious implications for the Holy See. If they can’t be trusted to tell us the truth about something so small, what about more important things? Why should we accept anything they say — assertion or denial — as anything but another convenient falsehood to help advance whatever narrative they’re trying to promote?
Perhaps more disturbing is the effect all this dishonesty on the faithful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Catholics reach the instantaneous conclusion that something coming out in the name of a pope was a phony — and it’s hard to blame them. It was the reaction I had when Pope Benedict allegedly issued a denial in response to our story about the Third Secret and Fr. Dollinger. (I’ve since come to believe that the denial may, in fact, have been real, but that’s another story.)
In this case, I’ve suspected all along that this letter’s expression of solidarity between the two popes was authentic — read this excellent article by Hilary White at The Remnant if you would like to understand why — but the admission of guilt on the part of the Vatican now removes most of my remaining doubt. Why would they go to the trouble to write a fake letter — and then doctor a photo of it — that doesn’t endorse the thing they were using it to promote?
What isn’t fake is the anger and betrayal many Catholics feel — anger and betrayal that will only deepen because of the events of this week.