Pope Francis, as I hoped, will complete Pope Benedict’s unfinished encyclical: it will be a striking illustration of the hermeneutic of continuity

Benedict XVI and Pope Francis (Photo: CNS)

I was greatly tempted to indulge myself in a rebuttal of Archbishop Longley’s response yesterday to my criticisms of ARCIC III, but I have already had two goes here and here at the subject, so beyond saying that his grace really didn’t address my criticisms, I think it’s time to move on: especially as there is another much less depressing subject to move on to, — and since this one shows higher authority, indeed the highest there is, as being, here at least — absolutely of one mind with this humble column, I think I would rather write something about that.

I refer to the Holy Father’s decision to complete Pope Benedict’s unfinished encyclical on Faith. Pope Francis has told the ordinary council of the Synod of Bishops that “the encyclical has to come out and it’s an encyclical written with four hands, so to speak, because Pope Benedict began writing it and he gave it to me. It’s a strong document. I will say in it that I received it and most of the work was done by him and I completed it.”

Two weeks ago I asked a question and made a suggestion about the unfinished encyclical, and I hope it won’t be thought unduly vainglorious of me to reproduce here what I said; I very rarely if ever make suggestions which the Pope himself then goes on so splendidly and in every detail to fulfil.

“Why”, I asked, “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’.”

Well, thus, it seems, it will come to pass. It will be, in effect, a joint encyclical, one “written with four hands”, as the present Holy Father so charmingly puts it. I wonder if they hatched this between them on that famous visit by Pope Francis to Castelgandolfo? “Pope Benedict began writing it”, Pope Francis tells us, “and he gave it to me.” Maybe he took it back with him in the helicopter? He goes on to say that “It’s a strong document”, and that he will say in the encylical itself that he received it, that most of the work was done by Pope Benedict, and that he completed it.

So rather than being simply a privately published work, it will now be part of the magisterium of the Church, as it was designed to be; it will, furthermore appear with a flourish, to bring the year of faith to an end: Pope Francis says that it wouldn’t be right to end the Year of Faith in November without “a beautiful document to help us.”

I have to say that after the discouraging response to my suggestion of some of my most intelligent and most regular contributors, this comes as a most joyful surprise. My best informed correspondent pointed out how different were the minds of the two men: “Despite [Pope Francis’s] insightful nuances he remains a 2-dimensional preacher with near-perfect aphorisms, sound allusions and quick-witted understanding – like an inspirational parish priest…he dances around the complexity with simple explanations and a generic [but effective] collection of traditional pietistic socially ‘relevant’ soundbites … but he doesn’t transcend the complexity to the simplicity beyond it – something only the greatest minds can perform. Pope Francis is not comparable to his saintly namesakes in this regard, nor is he anywhere near as remotely knowledgeable or comprehensively profound in understanding as his predecessor…”. “We can’t expect him”, he added, “to complete Ratzinger’s Unfinished Symphony….”

Well, maybe and maybe not: but he’s certainly capable of understanding what Pope Benedict has written; and he’s also capable of being guided by his predecessor (who just happens to be living handily nearby) as to how he intended to complete it. To continue in musical vein, It’s more than the insignificant Sussmayr had, for instance, when he made quite a decent job of completing Mozart’s Requiem.

Above all, Pope Francis has the authority to declare the document as a papal encyclical: it will now not just be published as an inspiring work by a private individual. It will now belong to the Universal Church, and not just to Josef Ratzinger.

So now, this most notable evidence of the distressing incompletion of Pope Benedict’s wondrous but too prematurely ended pontificate will be brought to its proper fulfillment; that at least will be a real and abiding consolation. Thanks be to God.

And thank you, Pope Francis: God bless the Pope. Both of them.