It never ceases to amaze me how prior bias will adversely affect the 1) logic and the 2) objectivity of people. Critics of Pope Francis take one side of this debate over what Pope Benedict thinks of Pope Francis. But it’s not logical thinking, as I will show. They are seeing only what they want to see, which is what happens when strong prior bias comes into play. For the background to the controversy, see Edward Pentin’s article, which I will refer to later, and a second one by Mike Lewis that speculates in-depth on why someone at the Vatican did this.
I couldn’t care less about the motives or reasons of whoever “doctored” the photograph of the text. My only interest is in determining the nature of Pope Benedict’s opinion of Pope Francis, based on the evidence of the full letter, and in examining the reasoning of the Francis-critics who seem to think that the “doctoring” somehow alters Pope Benedict’s opinion.
The full text can be read in Pentin’s article, and he is a papal critic, so I can’t be accused of using a “pro-pope” translator. Here are the two paragraphs where Pope Benedict expresses his view that the pontificate of Pope Francis is in continuity / consistent with his own. Francis critics — almost to a person — think this is not the case. Yet Pope Benedict has not said anything critical of Pope Francis, that I’m aware of, and I have been following all of this for five years now, as an apologist. The present material is in complete “inner continuity” with what he has said in the past:
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.
That’s both a positive endorsement of Francis’ pontificate, and a positive assessment of it as in complete consistency with his own, even taking into account “differences of style and temperament.” People tried to make out in 2005 that Benedict would be fundamentally or essentially different from Pope St. John Paul II. He wasn’t, and I wrote right after he was elected, that he wouldn’t be. Now they are trying to make out that Pope Francis is fundamentally or essentially different from Pope Francis, and he is not, and Benedict himself says he is not. I’ve been contending for the same opinion these past five years.
Even the radical Catholic reactionary pope-basher Steve Skojec admits that these paragraphs represent a “fairly hearty endorsement of Francis.” Michael J. Matt, editor of The Remnant (the most prominent reactionary site), echoes his sentiments, throwing in a dash of conspiratorialism for good measure:
In a March 11th letter signed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and addressed to Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, the former pope reportedly offers an impassioned defense of Pope Francis against the claim that he lacks theological and philosophical formation. In no uncertain terms, this letter, bearing Benedict’s signature, affirms that “there is an internal continuity between the two pontificates.” Whether Benedict actually wrote this letter or not, it gives rise to a number of grave questions that need to be answered rather urgently before history closes the book on this commedia diabolica.
So now the task of the Francis-critics is to somehow undermine this clearly expressed opinion of Pope Benedict. They do so by noting the next long paragraph, that was initially omitted by the Vatican:
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.
Papal critic Sandro Magister interprets the final paragraph as Benedict’s real opinion, expressed with “refined” irony, so as to wipe out the earlier portion, which was (he seems to think, best I can make out) merely boilerplate and perhaps not (hint hint wink wink) “sincere candor” like the last paragraph was:
And then there is that final paragraph, omitted in the press release, in which Ratzinger, with sincere candor, provides proof of his refined streak of irony. It’s all there for the reading. And he who wishes to understand, let him understand.
Reactionary luminary Chris Ferrara takes it further by essentially implying that Pope Benedict was lying and taking part in a cynical ruse:
Benedict’s obvious slighting of “the theology of Pope Francis” does indeed lend itself to reading the letter as a whole thus: “I am saying what I am expected to say, but I want you to know that I cannot vouch for it.” And yet Benedict was still willing to subscribe to the claim that eleven volumes he hadn’t read “rightly show that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation,” thus providing the Vatican PR machine with a handy blurb for a work of which he knows practically nothing. This bespeaks either undue influence upon him or his own lack of candor. Which, I cannot say for certain. . . .
Despite its contrary signaling, therefore, Benedict’s letter to Vigano must be seen as cooperation in a scheme to rescue Bergoglio’s imploding papacy from itself, no matter what Benedict’s subjective intention may have been in going along with the ruse. The letter’s claim of an “internal continuity” between his pontificate and Bergoglio’s is a transparent evasion of the truth. “Internal continuity” is just another way of saying “apparent lack of continuity.” Nor can the apparent lack of continuity be reduced to “differences of style and temperament.”
Steve Skojec in a separate article a day later noted how many papal critics blithely assumed that the initial abridged letter was a fake (as Michael Matt hinted above). He vehemently denies this. His solution to the “dilemma” (“how can Benedict like Francis?!?! The sky is falling!!!!”) is to “diss” Pope Benedict. I have been predicting lately, that this was coming. In the rush to bash Francis, the mentality would also spread to Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II. Currently, the reactionaries are objecting vociferously to the impending canonization of Blessed Pope Paul VI, because they hate Vatican II. Skojec feels these inner tensions in his position, and so like a true extreme reactionary that he is, he gets consistent and includes Benedict in on the conspiracy to subvert Holy Mother Church:
Simply because I continue to assert that a) Benedict most likely wrote this letter praising Francis and claiming continuity between their pontificates and b) Benedict bears a responsibility for what is happening now that he has a duty to confront, I have been blocked on Facebook, have lost financial supporters of this website, and have generally met with reactions varying from incredulity to accusations that I am falling prey to obvious lies to anger and accusations of disrespect. . . .
And it is this kind of attachment we have to the idea of Benedict as a guy who would never go along with what’s happening really demands deeper consideration. . . . The rot beneath the surface was merely papered over by the 21st century analog of authentic, rooted, traditional orthodoxy; by the trappings of office and the liturgical nostalgia of a pope like Benedict who nevertheless counted himself as among the theological revolutionaries who gave birth to the post-conciliar experiment — an experiment that has categorically and manifestly failed.
His critics want to maintain the illusion that Benedict was the darling and savior of reactionaries and mainstream traditionalists, while Francis is Satan Incarnate (or at least Attila the Hun). The letter under consideration blows through all that (Benedict clearly praises and agrees with Francis). So Skojec — in his nearly infinite wisdom — concludes that Benedict is a bad guy, too: one of those wascally wascal “neo-Catholics” intent on destroying all that is good and traditional.
We could go into all sorts of what has been speculated about regarding this letter, among the papal critics. Skojec and Magister will suffice as examples of the mindset. But as a general summary, we can say that the critics used the blurring incident as a way to discount what was said about Pope Francis in the beginning. This doesn’t work at all, because it’s quite easy to fully reconcile the two portions of the letter. The following considerations and proposed possibilities or scenarios are all perfectly feasible:
- Pope Benedict looked over the eleven volumes briefly (perhaps for several hours or an evening’s reading, for all we know), saw that it was in harmony with his own previous opinions and then gave an overall summary of the books. But he candidly admitted that he didn’t have the time or energy to read all eleven volumes and write a more meaty “dense theological passage on them.” The first paragraph is simply his prior oft-expressed opinion of Pope Francis.
- People write short “blurb” reviews of books they haven’t fully read, all the time. If anyone denies that they do ever this, don’t believe them. They also use ghost writers under their own name (which I’ve never ever done, and I have 49 published books). I’ve done this with regard to book reviews several times, myself. I can “heavily skim” books (a variant of speed reading) and get enough from them to know that I agree or disagree, and then write a review (sometimes the longest one a particular book receives). I’ve even put together several quotations books by this method. Note: in case anyone is wondering, I did fully read Lost Shepherd by Phil Lawler before negatively reviewing it.
- It’s not absolutely required of a person (even if he didn’t have a firm prior opinion as Benedict does here) to literally read eleven volumes to conclude that a given person “is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation.” One can, for example, peruse the five volumes of the Summa Theologica for twenty minutes and rightly and justifiably conclude that about St. Thomas Aquinas. Or they could gaze at forty volumes from St. Augustine in a library and grasp that Augustine was also such a mind.
- The observation of not having read the whole set (Pentin’s translation uses the phrase of not having read it “really well”: i.e., not totally, implying that he had read some of it), simply doesn’t contradict the earlier portion, based on the reasoning of #1 and #2 above. He felt fully justified in writing his summary statements, but not in writing a more in-depth analysis which would require a full reading (reading “really well”).
- Because the critics want so much to believe that their darling Pope Benedict opposes Pope Francis just as they do, they desperately jumped at the opportunity of discounting the first portion based on the second and the blurring / “censoring” by others. But consider the implications of that for a second. It would follow that the former pope was not being sincere in the two early paragraphs (or to be more blunt, was flat-out lying). Magister reconciles this by asserting a use of irony. But this won’t do. It’s a half-baked “solution” made up on the spot to salvage his prior anti-Francis bias. Others go for the “fake letter” or “coerced letter” wacko conspiratorial theories. Or they can go the route of Skojec of One Vader Five infamy (following the thought — cited at length — of the even more radical extremist Hilary White) and conclude in despair that former hero Ratzinger / Benedict is a bad, sinister guy, too, and alas, was all along. I think my proposed explanation is a lot more plausible and feasible.
Addendum: Now there is yet another portion of the letter that has come out: the actual final section. Pope Benedict objected to the inclusion of one particular writer in the eleven-volume set:
Just as a side note, I would like to mention my surprise at the fact that the authors also include Professor Hünermann, who during my pontificate put himself in the spotlight by heading anti-papal initiatives. He participated to a significant extent in the promulgation of the “Kölner Erklärung,” which, in relation to the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” attacked in a virulent manner the magisterial authority of the pope especially on questions of moral theology. The Europäische Theologengesellschaft, which he founded, also was initially designed by him as an organization in opposition to the papal magisterium.
Sandro Magister notes in his article about it:
German theologian Peter Hünermann, . . . was an implacable critic both of John Paul II and of Joseph Ratzinger himself as theologian and as pope. About Hünermann, a professor at the university of Tubingen, it may be recalled that he is the author of, among other things, a commentary on Vatican Council II that is the polar opposite of the Ratzingerian interpretation.
This doesn’t alter my argument above in the slightest because my topic was what Pope Benedict thought of Pope Francis: not his opinion of some radically liberal theologian who was included in the set. If anything, this supports our contention that Pope Benedict is orthodox and no liberal, because here he vehemently opposes a liberal participant in the set, which runs contrary to the present blistering attacks on Pope Benedict as a modernist: documented in my other article today. It also highlights all the more, the former pope’s declaration in the first part of the letter that Pope Francis’ thought and policies continue his own. Thus, he is surprised that someone with a different interpretation is included in the set.
None of that changes at all what the pope expressed as to his agreement in spirit with Pope Francis, as even reactionaries concede (hence, my citation in this regard of Skojec and Matt above). At the most, it explains that Pope Benedict’s reluctance to make a full endorsement based on a complete reading had to do with more than just being elderly and time considerations; it also included this objection. But neither objection is based on some imagined fundamental disagreement with the theology and approach of Pope Francis. Thus, realizing and recognizing this continuity of the present pope and the precious one, the reactionaries (due to their utter despising of Pope Francis) are now seeking to trash and bash Pope Benedict as a stinking neo-Catholic modernist, just as they have been doing with all other popes since Ven. Pope Pius XII.
Photo credit: Pope Benedict XVI during a general audience (5-2-07; taken by Tadeusz Górny) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]