The letter that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent to the Polish bishops to mark the centenary of his immediate predecessor’s birth covers a good bit of well-trodden ground, but there is one line that is current: “I was impressed by the humility of this great Pope, who abandoned ideas he cherished because he could not find the approval of the official organs that must be asked according to established norms.” That line reads like Benedict wrote it for his successor.
Church-watchers and Vaticanologists across the spectrum of opinion have long wondered at Francis’s willingness to govern basically without the Roman Curia: from Francis’s establishment of a “kitchen cabinet” of cardinal-advisors to spearhead the curial reform effort, to his effective side-lining of the Vatican’s doctrinal dicastery (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – CDF – which the man who became Benedict XVI headed for nearly a quarter-century), examples abound of Francis’s willingness to sidestep official organs of power and governance in favour of his own people and ideas.
Benedict XVI has come in for serious and often severe criticism – including from this quarter – for his willingness to say things after he promised to retreat into seclusion, especially for his willingness to say things he’s already said elsewhere and repeatedly. When coupled with his unwillingness to tell us what he knows of the abuse and coverup crisis at the highest echelons of ecclesiastical power, hearing him go over points he’s already made and insights he’s already offered can be grating.
Here however, the Pope Emeritus has a point, which he makes with his grace and subtlety, in the exquisite style of his elegant curialese. It is worth considering the broad context in which he offers the observation – a “brief personal remark” apt to illustrate “an important aspect” of Pope St John Paul II’s character and modus operandi:
From the very beginning, John Paul II was deeply touched by the message of Faustina Kowalska, a nun from Kraków, who emphasized Divine Mercy as an essential centre of the Christian faith. She had hoped for the establishment of such a feast day. After consultation, the Pope chose the Second Sunday of Easter. However, before the final decision was made, he asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to express its view on the appropriateness of this date. We responded negatively because such an ancient, traditional and meaningful date like the Sunday in Albis concluding the Octave of Easter should not be burdened with modern ideas. It was certainly not easy for the Holy Father to accept our reply. Yet, he did so with great humility and accepted our negative response a second time. Finally, he formulated a proposal that left the Second Sunday of Easter in its historical form but included Divine Mercy in its original message.
Whatever one feels regarding the choice of the date for the new recurrence, the Solemnity of Divine Mercy is what it is in the life of the Church and it is where it is on the calendar. The compromise Benedict says his predecessor proposed really gave John Paul II the thing he desired: a liturgical place for the feast at the core of ecclesiastical life. That’s fine.
The real takeaway from Benedict XVI’s observation is therefore twofold: John Paul II worked within the system and still got what he wanted; and, that trusting in the Spirit means proposing new things beside the old and seeing what takes.
Potential applications to recent controversies are plentiful.
If Amoris Laetitia, for example, was an official encouragement that Francis intended to be a conversation-starter, then it is fairly clear Francis also thought he could rely on sympathetic interpreters to shape the conversation.
The problem arose when some actors – local bishops and bishops conferences – decided to “shape” the conversation by truncating it and jumping straight to the implementation phase. Francis winked at them when they did.
Lots of the discussion around Amoris has turned on whether – and if so, how – the document really does develop doctrine. Doctrinal development happens organically – even when it is helped by a little gardening from ecclesiastical authority – and takes time. The post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, however, certainly precipitated a crisis over how the Church would be governed.
Pope Francis also tried to balance the scales.
He went easy on his more eminent critics, whose questions were fair and arguably deserved a straightforward answer straight from the head man, but whose decision to take their questions regarding the document to the public when and in the way they did might have cost them their red hats, and fairly too.
Where one stands on the dubia or in the Amoris controversy is largely beside the point.
The dubia cardinals may well have been in firm control of the moral high ground in doing as they did. Francis may well have been wrong not to answer them directly. Sometimes, doing the right thing is costly. The point here is that Francis didn’t count on things going the way they did, and tried for too long to be cute, when he needed to be strong and direct.
In all this, Francis’s problem was not so much poor teaching as it was bad governance.
Other times – think of his recent summary dismissal of five employees in connection with a suspicious London real estate deal before the investigation was even finished and after he’d promised to let justice run its course, or his insistence upon taking the case of Archbishop Anthony Apuron out of the hands of his judges and deciding on it himself (or not) – Francis often does things on his own and in his way.
The idea that trusting in the Spirit doesn’t mean ramming things through and smashing the old established things along the way, was particularly on display in the bottom third of Benedict’s letter, which he devoted to consideration of the title, Magnus – “the Great” for his sainted predecessor.
“Let us leave open the question of whether the epithet, ‘the Great’, will prevail or not,” Benedict wrote, after rehearsing the pertinent historical examples – Leo I and Gregory I – and offering a sympathetic comparison to John Paul II. “It is true that God’s power and goodness have become visible to all of us in John Paul II,” he continued. “In a time when the Church is again suffering from the oppression of evil, he is for us a sign of hope and confidence.”
The threat to Leo’s Rome came from Pagan barbarian invaders who were sympathetic to Arian misbelief. The Lombards, who annoyed Gregory’s Rome, were somewhat more civilised and posed a more stable political threat. Christians in many parts of the world deal with similar threats and nuisances today: from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa, in China and even in the West, Christians live with varying kinds and degrees of danger and annoyance not entirely dissimilar to those Leo and Gregory faced and outfaced.
John Paul II certainly inspired millions of people while he lived, and offered an example of suffering as Christ-like as any we’ve seen in living memory while he died before our eyes. While he was alive and healthy, however, he preferred to travel the globe as creeping rot took hold in Rome and in the leadership culture of the Church throughout the world. That is part of his legacy, too: the only part about which anyone living can do anything. Benedict took the job reluctantly and put it down before he’d finished – or really even started – and Francis has taken seven years to accomplish very little in the way of reform.
Benedict’s careful invocation of historical example allows him to critique and to teach.
Essentially to say: Keep the faith, trust in God, play ball but know the game and know with whom you’re playing, and most of all, never give up.
While a reader of the letter in this key might balk at the notion that Benedict would be so critical of his successor – it’s rich for the fellow who put the job down before it was done to comment from the peanut gallery on the work of the fellow who picked it up – the point is taken. His lesson is one from which people in every circumstance and on every side of every hot-button issue might profit.
We’ll know someday – maybe in a century or so – whether Amoris was a watershed moment in doctrinal development. Speaking generally, the triumph of the Church is assured us by an authority rather greater than that of any Pope. Peter’s barque will come safely to port. That’s no excuse for running the ship willy-nilly, now or ever.