Analysis: Was Benedict’s letter an endorsement, a critique – or neither?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (CNS)

This week’s furore over Benedict XVI’s letter could seem a little overblown. First the Pope Emeritus was reported to have written a note paying a compliment to Pope Francis. Then it emerged that the official Vatican photo had blurred and concealed another part of the letter – in which Benedict declined to write a short passage on a new collection of booklets about Francis’s theology. (The refusal was mentioned at the press conference, but not on the Vatican website or in the original reports.) It was odd that so many headlines should be written about a fairly tame exchange.

But then Benedict’s views are inevitably of great interest. The focus of the Church’s current crisis – the doctrine prohibiting Communion for the remarried – means Benedict is often invoked. As CDF prefect he worked with John Paul II to reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching; as Pope, he continued in the same line.

Moreover, Benedict often commented on the prohibition. In a 1989 address, he grouped it with three other doctrines: those on birth control, homosexuality, and a male priesthood. All four, he wryly remarked, were part of a “litany of objections” to Catholic teaching, whose “regular recitation has become like the performance of a duty for progressive-thinking Catholics”. All four were integral to the Christian worldview which needed an imaginative defence against a “revolutionary” post-Christian “paradigm”.

Such words were especially noteworthy because as an up-and-coming theologian in the 1970s, Ratzinger had toyed with the idea of Communion for the remarried. When the relevant volume of his collected writings came out in 2014, just as the Communion debate began, that essay was revised: Benedict confirmed that his earlier musings had been a misstep.

Now, of course the doctrine does not depend on what goes on between the ears of Joseph Ratzinger. The teaching is the Church’s teaching, not his. But for those who dislike that teaching, Benedict’s silent presence is an awkward fact. That helps to explain why some people at the Vatican wanted his approval; why they made such a big deal of it when he said some courteous things about Francis; and why, when Vatican officials turned out to have engaged in distortion – literally – it was so embarrassing.

The letter itself is a mysterious document. You can’t quite read it as a vote of confidence in Francis’s pontificate. Yes, it says it is “foolish” to caricature Francis as a mere hands-on pastor and Benedict as a mere ivory-tower theorist, and it refers to “inner continuity” between the pontificates. But this is rather limited praise, especially given the increasingly wild language – “paradigm shifts”, “revolutionary change”, etc – used by theological liberals claiming to be spokesmen for Pope Francis.

On the other hand, you can’t quite read it as a critique of Francis either. Admittedly, the letter’s language – in which he says the volumes on Francis’s theology look very interesting, but he has other commitments – could be read as displaying Benedict’s “refined streak of irony”. So Sandro Magister suggested, while Fr John Hunwicke delighted in the “evidence that Ratzinger’s old, deft, feline wit has not deserted the dear old man”. Maybe. But if Benedict is often ironic, he is never rude or sardonic.

The safest assumption, I think, is that Benedict is trying to say as little as possible – not taking a stand, not “hitting out” at anyone, as some headlines tried to claim.

Benedict is likely to disappoint anyone who wants them on their side. Perhaps he has the same concerns about the Church as, say, the dubia cardinal Joachim Meisner, for whose funeral Benedict sent such a generous tribute. But the Pope Emeritus is not going to publicly endorse the dubia: to do so would make him a protagonist in this already-chaotic drama.

It is also, for all we know, possible that Benedict might revert to the theological liberalism of his youth. (Though it would be deeply uncharitable to predict it.) But since retiring, his interventions have mostly been to praise the kind of figures whom theological liberals resent – Cardinal Sarah, for instance. If it is true that sponsors of the “new paradigm” were trying to get Benedict to help their agenda, they were foolish.

The kindest course of action, surely, is to leave the Pope Emeritus in peace, and not to seek dramatic interventions or blurbs for controversial books. It is tricky enough to be in his position at a time when the Church is so divided. “The Ratzingers,” Cardinal Meisner once supposedly remarked, “are loyal people. It is a habit which does not make their life easier.”