Comment Comment and Features

Is Francis really against Benedict?

Benedict XVI hugs Pope Francis in St Peter’s Basilica last month (Photo: AP)

In our cover story last week, Damian Thompson asked whether Pope Francis was steering the Church away from the direction charted by Pope Benedict XVI, noting the prominence given to Cardinal Walter Kasper – “Joseph Ratzinger’s longest theological adversary” – and the sacking of Cardinal Raymond Burke. The suggestion is plausible, but the stronger evidence is not from Germany, but Belgium. It was lost amid the attention paid to the opening of the Holy Year, but in December the new Archbishop of Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, was installed. Therein lies a tale.

In 2009, as Cardinal Godfried Danneels was completing 30 years as archbishop of Brussels, he and the apostolic nuncio in Belgium at the time, Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, agreed that the successor should be Danneels’s protégé, Bishop De Kesel, auxiliary of Brussels since 2002.

Pope Benedict XVI did not agree that another in the line of Danneels was needed, perhaps remembering that at the 1985 extraordinary synod of bishops on the legacy of Vatican II, it was an exasperated Danneels who protested that far too much attention was being given to The Ratzinger Report, the book-length interview with Vittorio Messori. Benedict chose instead André-Joseph Léonard, then almost 20 years Bishop of Namur, to succeed Danneels in January 2010. Neither Danneels nor the nuncio were pleased.

Indeed, just months after Léonard’s transfer to Brussels, the now retired nuncio, Archbishop Rauber, gave an incendiary interview to Il Regno. In a most unusual breach of diplomatic manners, Rauber strongly opposed Benedict for the succession in Brussels, criticising Léonard as a bad choice, made over his own and Cardinal Danneels’s objections. Rauber further attacked Benedict, revealing that while he was nuncio in Switzerland, Ratzinger had four times complained about him to the Secretariat of State.

In due course, Léonard would have been created a cardinal after Danneels turned 80 in 2013. But by that time Benedict was no longer pope, and Francis took a different course. In the consistories of 2014 and 2015, he passed over Léonard for the red hat. Both years he appointed Danneels to the synods on the family – leaving Léonard out, despite him being the most senior bishop in Belgium – indicating clearly that he disapproved of Benedict’s decision in Brussels.

Moreover, in the consistory of 2015, Francis elevated Karl-Josef Rauber to the College of Cardinals as one of the distinguished prelates over 80. In ecclesiastical Rome, the public humiliation of Léonard – and by implication, Benedict – could not have been less subtle. The decision, later in 2015, to appoint De Kesel, the one that Rauber wanted back in 2009, to succeed Léonard simply followed the rewarding of a nuncio who publicly attacked a sitting pope. In his own retirement, Léonard gave a recent interview to Famille Chrétienne in which he defended his more orthodox tenure – including a remarkable tenfold increase in seminarians – but declined to speak of Francis in the way that Rauber spoke of Benedict.

The evidence therefore that, despite their warm public greetings, Francis wishes to undermine what Benedict did, is rather stronger than Damian Thompson suggests.

There is another tale to be told though, one of continuity rather than rupture. Ten years ago this month, Benedict’s first encyclical was released, Deus Caritas Est, in which he wrote: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: for proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”

The direct continuity here is easy to see. If St John Paul was the great proclaimer, and Benedict the great liturgist, Francis exercises the charitable service of the Church without peer. Indeed, Benedict’s harsh words for the bureaucratic Church have been taken up afresh by Francis.

The latter’s warnings about the Church not becoming a mere NGO echo exactly what the former taught.

Indeed, one of the great battles of Benedict’s pontificate was over the Catholic identity of the Church’s international charitable agencies. Cardinal Robert Sarah, then president of Cor Unum, wanted a more robust Catholic identity, with closer ties to both the local bishops and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, then president of Caritas Internationalis, fought him every step of the way. Sarah won a remarkable victory. Though he then occupied a rather marginal Vatican post, he routed Rodríguez with Benedict’s support.

It was Francis who then promoted Cardinal Sarah to be head of the Vatican liturgy and worship office, from where he led the effort against attempts to get the synod to modify the teachings about Holy Communion and marriage.

Of the two tales, the rise of Cardinal Sarah is more consequential than that of Danneels, De Kesel and Rauber, all of whom are utterly marginal regarding the new evangelisation in northern Europe.

So is Francis against Benedict? It is plausible to argue just that, but much evidence points the other way.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the January 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here