Pope Benedict didn’t finish his final encyclical. His first, Deus Caritas Est, was started by Pope John Paul: couldn’t Pope Francis complete his last?

Pope Francis greets the Pope Emeritus at Castel Gandolfo (CNS)

Yesterday morning, just as I was wondering what to write about next, there was a ring at the front doorbell; it was Parcelforce, with a large package, which turned out to be from the Catholic Truth Society, who had kindly sent me a bundle of their latest pamphlets (which I hope to take a look at next week), including an indispensable one, look out for it at the back of church, about Pope Francis. It also included a handsomely-produced hardback volume, which filled me with a mixture of pleasure and of sadness: it was Pope Benedict’s complete encyclicals.

Or rather, his incomplete encyclicals: hence, in part, the sadness. Last December, when the idea of Pope Benedict’s resignation was the furthest thing from anybody’s mind, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, announced that Pope Benedict’s fourth encyclical would be released in the first half of 2013. It would complete a trilogy, or rather a series of four, on the theological virtues: a series of four, because the virtue of charity had been given two encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est (2005) and Caritas in Veritate (2009); the virtue of hope was treated in Spe Salvi (2007): the series was to be completed with an encyclical exploring the subject of faith: this would fittingly appear during the year of faith itself.

So, why didn’t it appear when it was supposed to, if it was so near completion? Couldn’t Pope Benedict have finished it first and THEN resigned? Almost certainly, he didn’t because there was some major hitch in the process of its completion, which made him realise that there would be a considerable delay. The point is that a papal encyclical isn’t just written by the pope: it’s not like writing a book, over which the author has complete control. These documents are normally the product of a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing involving senior officials of the Roman curia, especially the CDF; there had been, I would surmise, some kind of obstruction, or perhaps I should say more charitably, complication, of the kind that caused Pope Benedict’s last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009) to appear more than a year after its expected date.

2005 seems such a long time ago now: but who could forget the excitement—and for many, especially in the secular media, the extreme surprise, caused by the appearance of the first encyclical of this extraordinary series of magisterial texts? The Guardian’s report on Deus Caritas Est was headlined “Pope surprises Catholics with warm words on power of love”. It was written by Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, who is himself a Catholic, and its tone of gratified amazement, as I noted at the time, “reflected the general reaction among Catholics hostile to the overall direction of the last pontificate, and particularly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its supposedly cold-hearted former prefect”.

“Pope Benedict XVI thawed his previously chilly image yesterday” wrote Bates, “by producing as his first message to his world-wide flock a notably warm rumination on the nature of love. Deus Caritas Est … was greeted last night with some astonishment and relief among senior Catholics”. The encyclical’s message, opined Bates, “was far from the finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not’ tone that characterised some of his predecessor’s pronouncements and contrasted with Benedict’s stern reputation….”

True enough: the tone of the encyclical did indeed belie the Pope’s “stern reputation”: but where, it had to be asked, did that come from? The answer was that the cold-hearted “Panzer-Cardinal” Ratzinger of former times was from beginning to end a media construct. But what the press constructs, the press can deconstruct: and there followed a media makeover, “unequalled”, as I wrote in Faith magazine the following year, “since Dickens published the final instalment of The Christmas Carol, and mean old Ebenezer Scrooge, transformed by the Spirit of Christmas, astonished and slightly terrified the Cratchit family by turning up on Christmas day with a huge turkey (the encyclical was signed on Christmas Day).”

“There never was such a turkey,” wrote Dickens: “there never was such an encyclical”, Ruth Gledhill very nearly wrote, in The Times (which gave Deus Caritas Est a double page spread).

The tender-hearted Ms Gledhill had been expecting another chilling dose of “Bah! Humbug!”: “I started reading Deus Caritas Est expecting to be disappointed, chastised and generally laid low” she wrote. “An encyclical on love from a right-wing pope could only contain more damning condemnations of our materialistic, westernised society, more evocations of the ‘intrinsic evil’ of contraception, married priests, homosexuality. It would surely continue the Church’s grand tradition of contempt for the erotic, a tradition that ensures a guilty hangover in any Roman Catholic who dares to indulge in love-making for any reason other than the primary one of reproduction. How wonderful it is to be proven wrong. This encyclical”, she continued, “is not the work of an inquisitor. It is the work of a lover — a true lover of God”.

Even The Tablet was enthusiastic. “Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical”, its leader began, “confirms him as a man of humour, warmth, humility and compassion, eager to share the love that God ‘lavishes’ on humanity and display it as the answer to the world’s deepest needs. This is a remarkable, enjoyable and even endearing product of Pope Benedict’s first few months. If first encyclicals set the tone for a new papacy, then this one has begun quite brilliantly.”

Well, The Tablet soon recovered its old anti-Ratzingerian balance (phew!) but it is now trying to be enthusiastic about Pope Francis in the same sort of way as it was at first about Pope Benedict, hoping that he will turn out to be a jolly liberal: but the paper won’t, I predict, keep this up for long, once the new Holy Father has established, as he already is beginning to, that despite his endearing personal ways, he inevitably believes exactly the same things as his predecessor did, the basic function of the papal office being to guarantee continuity in the magisterium of the Church: there will never BE a pope to The Tablet’s taste, unless and until that organ becomes once more what it was in its halcyon days under Douglas Woodruffe.

Which brings me back to Pope Benedict’s “lost” encyclical on the theological virtue of Faith. Father Lombardi says that Pope Benedict might eventually publish the document under his own name: but that wouldn’t be at all the same thing. It wouldn’t then be part of the papal magisterium.

But why couldn’t Pope Francis himself finish and then promulge this encyclical on faith? It is not generally realised that Pope Benedict’s own first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was actually started by his predecessor (so much for the general reaction that it made a wonderful change from the censorious John Paul). Francis, after all, is now the pope who will preside over the final phase of this year of faith. The teachings of the papal encyclicals are part of a continuing body of papal teaching. We have for the first time, two popes, living in close proximity in Vatican City. Why not another first: a joint encyclical? Pope Francis’s first encyclical could then be Pope Benedict’s last.

If Pope Francis, together with all those already involved in the composition of Pope Benedict’s encyclical on faith, were now to complete it, and possibly to issue it in the joint names of both Popes (though that isn’t essential) his predecessor will surely die happy to have left it incomplete. It would then have served as the perfect illustration of his most famous coinage and his most fundamental doctrinal principle: “the hermeneutic of continuity”.