The Atlantic slips — somehow — inside mind of Benedict XVI

During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).

Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.

Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.

Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?

A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.

That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.

Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Dismantles? Pope Francis has dismantled orthodox Catholicism?

If the key to Benedict was his defense of doctrine, using such a word requires the author to provide some concrete examples of major doctrinal changes made by the new pope. In other words, in what sense has Francis dismantled the doctrinal work of Benedict and John Paul II? It is clear that he wants major changes in pastoral strategies. But he is attempting to “dismantle” the doctrinal work of Benedict?

A few lines later, when Elie discusses the methodology of his work, he even undercuts his own argument.

With the press transfixed by Francis, I went to Rome to talk about Benedict. Invariably, the conversations wound up being about both of them. Priests, Church officials, and Vatican insiders told me that the differences between the two men come down to personality, not principle, and that Benedict is delighted with the goodwill the world is showing Francis. He probably is.

Wait for it. You know what’s coming, right?

Yet when he was the arbiter of Church doctrine, he never missed a chance to declare that the Church was founded on revealed truth rather than personality, and that the world’s goodwill isn’t worth having except on the Church’s terms. “Who am I to judge?” — Francis’s remark about gay people — was a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism.” Francis’s offhand statements and openness to new approaches make clear that he is a very different pope — and unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy about it.

Of course, of course, read the actual statements by Francis (click here for transcript). The pope was talking about gay priests who were struggling — in repentance — with their sins. Francis stressed that he opposed public opposition — the gay “lobby” issue — to the church’s moral teachings. He was saying that, when sinners repent, God is the judge.

But that kind of logic does not fit into this work of anti-Benedict apologetics.

And the mind-reading? Here is one more example, during a discussion of Benedict’s genuinely radical act of retiring from the papacy:

Benedict’s renunciation changed the calculus. Now no older man can be ruled out. Now an older man can be elected pope and work hard for a few years, knowing he is free to resign when his energy flags or when he reckons that he has done all he can.

That’s what Francis is doing — and Benedict knows, better than anybody, that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s freestyle, judgment-averse pontificate possible. The thought is enough to keep him awake at night.

Read it all, if you are into foggy works of apologetics written and reported, kind of, in the old New Journalism style.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Kevin Spencer

    To call this article a work of apologetics is probably pushing it. The article reads like a Clancy or Patterson novel. Intrigues. Power plays and “insiders” in an NGO trying to stay relevant.

    Exactly what the pontiff is on record and deed NOT doing and verifiable by so many sources. You’re spot on; the article not just fails but refuses to get religion or journalism. I vote it as Worst Religion Article for 2014 to date. Somewhere, even NYT reporters are reading it and saying, “What the heck was THAT?”

    • Howard

      Clancy would have made it more interesting

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I was amazed at the keen insight the author had into what Benedict is thinking when he never even talked to him. One wonders if the author has even ever read any words that Benedict has written beyond “the” and “and.”

  • Naomi Kietzke Young

    I shall have to re-read Elie’s other biographies with a more critical eye to see if I failed to notice similar quasi-telepathic insights.

  • boinkie

    I once read a description of Catholicism that they are strict in doctrine but forgiving in personal lapses.
    Francis has not changed doctrine, only brought the “pastoral” part into the open: The press jerry picks his quotes to remake him into a radical, which he is not. Indeed, what they fail to appreciate is that he comes to the papacy from the third world. Here in the Philippines, for example, our main problem in town is corrupt (and sometimes murderous) politicians, not the open gays who are part of the landscape.

  • Meggan Conway

    One of the reasons why Francis seems so much more open and pastoral is that he has an open and friendly demeanor and appearance. Benedict could probably do the exact same thing as Francis, but because he looks like Emperor Palpatine or Rumpelstiltskin, he has not been seen as pastoral. I don’t mean to reduce it all to looks, but I really think that’s part of it. Go to Google images and look up each name separately.

    • Meggan Conway

      But I want you to know that I am a big fan of both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. I love and admire both of them.

      • FW Ken

        So do I. It always amazes me that writers don’t seem to understand that a South American pastor is not like a German theologian. Still, you would think they would have noticed the bumper stickers “I love my German Shepherd”.

        They also seem resistant to the fact that Pope Benedict, as a cardinal and as pope, did more to address the sex scandals than Bl. JP II and Francis combined. Why would that be?

    • Howard

      As superficial as people are, I don’t think this is about physical appearance. I think it has to do with style. Benedict had been a German professor, and he always had a bit of the German professor about him. Francis has nothing of the German professor about him — by comparison, he’s happy-go-lucky, like one might stereotypically expect of an Italian living in Buenos Aires. Joseph Ratzinger always had the academic’s curse which makes precision paramount; Francis appears to be completely free of that curse.

      • Meggan Conway

        I agree with you, Howard. But I think physical appearance contributes to it.

        • Howard

          I don’t think the physical difference is that great. Neither Pope was ever going to be Mr. Universe or be voted “sexiest man alive” by People Magazine.

          In this case, I think it is what one thinks of the man that shapes what one thinks of his appearance, not the other way around.

          • Julia B

            I think both issues are going on. My German father was a great smiler, I saw him get teary upon occasion, but he had that same look of deep concentration as Benedict that comes off as stern. He was a very kindly man, but he furrowed his brow when really thinking and could look rather formidable.

            Francis, when not smiling, has a look of bemusement or not thinking of anything in particular – which comes off as gentleness. The press rarely chose photos of Benedict smiling and mostly does choose those kinds of photos of Francis.

            Since I check out the Catholic blogs and press every day, I see Francis with all kinds of looks on his face. Reading the secular press, you would think he does nothing but smile broadly. That’s not so. People who knew him well in Buenas Aires are surprised to see this constantly jolly person in the papers.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    When a Catholic leader says he wants new pastoral initiatives this has never meant he wants to tear down Catholic teachings. In fact, it means the opposite. It means he wants to build up acceptance of Catholic teachings through setting a better example (like allowing yourself to be photographed going to confession) or through more fervent evangelical effort .
    The trouble with news coverage of the Catholic Church is that politics is the prism through which most media people interpret what is going on in the Church . They still can’t comprehend the supreme spiritual act of humility Pope Benedict’s stepping aside was. It flies in the face of all the canards over the years that all that leading Catholic clergy are interested in is grasping power for themselves.

    • Julia B

      AND the press does not seem to understand what Benedict’s job was in Rome before being elected Pope. It was his job to hold the line on doctrine; he wasn’t just pushing his own feelings about things. He tried several times to resign and retire to Germany, but JPII would not allow it. Like Francis, Benedict was a loyal son of the church.

  • Ricko Dayat

    Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

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  • joanofarc

    Your critique is accurate. I read the entire piece and found it filled with internal contradictions and mean-spirited attacks.

  • Katalina

    Francis is more open and friendly than Benedict because surprise of his personality. It is not about the personality it is about the office. You insult the Benedict with snide remarks and then claim to love him. At least he was easy to understand and you did not need a weekly explanation of what he meant. He gave us back our lost Cultural Patrimony and Traditions but I guess that does not matter to you because you and your ilk are all about the emotional sentimental and banal crap, Benedict was the Pope of Reason and Objective truth. I believe he will be a Doctor of the Church.

  • Katalina

    Oh and by the way if I have to hear the word Pastoral one more time I am going to scream. Pope John called the Council Pastoral yet he wore the same elaborate vestments that Benedict used even though he was dirt poor. Pastoral can mean anything. ALL POPES ARE Peter’s SUCCESORS and Vicars of Christ period. Please stop with these personality cults that make them larger than life its wrong.

  • fredx2

    It was so far out, I thought maybe it was an Easter meditation, incurred after the author took a drug of some sort.
    Maybe Elie is in fact, Hunter Thompson, and the whole death thing was a fake.

    But then again, look at the writing. Maybe it was Dan Brown.

    “I’ll call my agent, pondered the prosperous scribe. He reached for the telephone using one of his two hands.”

    • Julia B

      “He reached for the telephone using one of his two hands.”

      I almost wet my pants laughing. You have captured him perfectly.

  • Babagranny

    Thank you for this. I could not contain myself when I read the Atlantic article the day it arrived in my rural mailbox and have not yet calmed down enough even to read it again, let alone lambaste the writer about his — well, you know. I could believe such an article showing up in some anti-Catholic or bigoted rag, but not in the Atlantic. But quickly I remembered why I quit subscribing to the Atlantic many years ago, and only took it up again because i received a free subscription with some other purchase that I had made.

  • Don Campbell

    Look, Pope Francis has not changed one letter or part of a letter of the Church’s moral doctrine. He can’t change the infallible Magisterium. What bothers some, though, is that he gives the impression that he doesn’t much like the Church’s teaching on certain issues, that it is something he has sort of been stuck with and which is impediment to evangelization, rather than something to be embraced and celebrated. When asked about these things, instead of fully embracing them and explaining their beauty and truth, he dutifully says “I am a son of the Church” (ringing endorsement there!) but that there is no need to talk about these things “all the time.” I know I probably have it all wrong, but I also have no doubt that a lot of Catholics feel this way.


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