Did Benedict’s abuse crisis letter reveal a ‘fracture’ between him and Francis?
April 18, 2019 (L'Espresso) — In the week that followed the explosive publication of Joseph Ratzinger's "notes" on the scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, there are at least seven essential elements that have come into the open, which are to be kept in mind in view of future developments.
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The first concerns the genesis of the publication of the "notes." In the introductory paragraphs, Ratzinger says that he wrote them "in the hiatus between the announcement of the meeting of the presidents of the episcopal conferences and its real and proper beginning," or between September 12 2018, the day of the announcement, and February 21 2019, the opening day of the summit.
But Ratzinger also says that he wrote them to "contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour."
From which one deduces that he wrote them in order to offer them, first of all, to the leaders of the Church gathered at the Vatican by Pope Francis to discuss the question.
This was confirmed on April 13 by "Corriere della Sera," the most widely read secular Italian newspaper, one of the press outlets that two days before had published the full text of the "notes":
Benedict sent the eighteen-and-a-half pages on pedophilia 'to the gracious attention' of the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, before the global meeting of the episcopal conferences, to make them known also to Francis.
What happened however is that none of the participants at the summit received Ratzinger's text. Francis thought it better to keep it to himself, locked away in a drawer.
And no one would have known anything about it if Ratzinger himself, about forty days later, had not decided to make it public, formally in a little-known Bavarian magazine, "Klerusblatt," but practically in a dozen major publications, Catholic and not, all over the world and in several languages, after alerting the highest Vatican authorities to this, as he himself has revealed:
Having contacted the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the Holy Father himself, it seemed appropriate to publish this text in the Klerusblatt.
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A second element is the initial reaction of the Vatican media. Frosty.
The official portal "Vatican News" covered Ratzinger's text several hours after it had been made public, among the second-class news items, with a brief and bureaucratic summary and with no link to the complete text.
And the same was done by "L'Osservatore Romano" printed on the afternoon of April 11, with the same concise summary buried at the bottom of page 7, without any lead on the front page and beneath a much more prominent article by the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, director of "La Civiltà Cattolica" and the main adviser and ghostwriter of Pope Francis.
Since it is known how close the pope is to the highest officials of the Vatican media — prefect of the dicastery for communication Paolo Ruffini and editorial director Andrea Tornielli, in addition to Fr. Spadaro — this chill in registering the publication of the text by Ratzinger cannot help but reflect strong irritation on the part of Francis.
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A third element is the behavior of the Vatican media over the following days, entirely taciturn on the contents and repercussions of Ratzinger's text and instead bent on giving distracting and justifying emphasis — with two successive editorials by Tornielli and by "L'Osservatore Romano" director Andrea Monda — to a concomitant gesture of Francis that was as disconcerting as it was spectacular, his kissing the feet of the two rival leaders in the ferocious war between tribes in South Sudan that has already claimed 400,000 lives.
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A fourth element is the silence of Francis. Not only practiced, but also theorized. In the homily for Palm Sunday, on April 14, the pope took as a basis for comparison the "silence of Jesus throughout his Passion," a silence that "overcomes the temptation to answer back, to act like a 'superstar'." Because "in moments of darkness and great tribulation, we need to keep silent, to find the courage not to speak, as long as our silence is meek and not full of anger. The meekness of silence will make us appear even weaker, more humble. Then the devil will take courage and come out into the open."
Silence is the typical reaction of Jorge Mario Bergoglio every time he is seriously put to the test. He adopted it with the "dubia" of the four cardinals, with the uncomfortable questions of ex-nuncio in the United States Carlo Maria Viganò and now with the contribution of the pope emeritus.
That Francis, with this last apologia of silence of his, should allude "to the tensions and poisons connected to the 'notes' of Benedict XVI" is not the fruit of fantasy, seeing that it has been set down in black and white by a reporter very close to Santa Marta like Domenico Agasso, the current coordinator of the website "Vatican Insider" directed until a few months ago by Tornielli and still under his supervision.
In "Vatican Insider" this exegesis of the papal homily followed, on Sunday April 14, two other articles by Agasso with very eloquent titles:
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And with these two articles there came into the open a fifth element of the story: the radically negative judgment that Pope Francis has developed on the publication of Ratzinger's "notes."
Francis is keeping this judgment of his to himself. But the striking vocal harmony of persons very close to him allows an interpretation of what he thinks.
The most diligent in taking a position has been Stefania Falasca, an editorialist for the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, "Avvenire," but above all a longtime friend of Bergoglio, together with her husband, Gianni Valente, director of the Vatican agency "Fides" and another leading writer for "Vatican Insider."
It is useful to recall that Bergoglio's first telephone call after his election as pope, on the very evening of March 13 2013, was to none other than Stefania Falasca. And a good two times, in the days that preceded that conclave, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires had been to dinner at her house, where Tornielli was also present.
So then, with two tweets shortly after the publication of Ratzinger's "notes" Falasca accused the pope emeritus of having violated two requirements that the 2004 directory "Apostolorum Successores" imposed on all bishops emeritus: "not to interfere in any way" with the reigning bishop, and not to "even hint at some kind of parallel authority."
The first of the two articles by Agasso on "Vatican Insider" cited above takes its cue from here to maintain that the publication of the "notes" has broken an equilibrium between the two popes, and that this has even come to "a fracture." And therefore "a 'constitutional' question is raised on the role of the pope emeritus." A role that in effect is an unresolved tangle, but that Bergoglio's apologists are now taking advantage of to order Ratzinger to remain silent and "hidden from the world."
And the second article reiterates the same concept, in an interview with Massimo Faggioli, a disciple of what is called the "school of Bologna" and a professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia, he too convinced that "the problem is raised of regulating the figure of the [pope] emeritus for the future" and that in the meantime, at present, it is necessary that Benedict XVI "remain invisible."
Both articles also fantasize over an external manipulation of the text and of the very person of Ratzinger, on the part of unspecified aides of his.
In any case, without saying a single word that is not one of disdain toward the contents of the "notes," in spite of their extreme seriousness, in continuity with what Benedict XVI wrote in the memorable 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland.
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But there are also those who state: "They want to silence Benedict XVI because he is telling the truth." And this brings us to the sixth element of the story: the interview of Cardinal Gerhard Müller by Riccardo Cascioli in "La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana" of April 15.
The whole interview is worth reading. But here are three passages in which Müller vindicates the freedom of the pope emeritus to "speak the truth":
Of course bishops emeritus must stay out of the everyday governance of the Church, but when it comes to doctrine, morality, faith they are obligated to speak by divine law. All have promised during episcopal consecration to defend the 'depositum fidei.' The bishop and great theologian Ratzinger has not only the right but also the duty to speak and give testimony of revealed truth.
The apostles Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman Church, gave their lives for the truth. Peter and Paul did not say: 'Now there are other successors, Timothy and Titus, let's let them speak publicly.' They gave testimony right to the end of their lives, all the way to martyrdom, with blood.
A bishop emeritus, when he celebrates a Mass, in the homily must he not speak the truth? Must he not speak of the indissolubility of marriage only because other active bishops have introduced new rules that are not in harmony with the divine law? It is instead the active bishops who do not have the power to change the divine law in the Church. They have no right to tell a priest that he must give communion to a person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. No one can change this divine law, if one does so he is a heretic, he is a schismatic.
And these are the final remarks of the interview:
Q: Cardinal Müller, what consequences do you expect from the publication of these "notes" by Benedict XVI?
A: I hope that some will finally begin to address the problem of sexual abuse in a clear and correct way. Clericalism is a false response.
"Clericalism" being the mantra that for Pope Francis would be the cause of all the evils of the Church.
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Finally, the seventh but not last element of the story: Francis's visit to Benedict, on the afternoon of April 15, for Easter and birthday greetings, as shown in the photo released by the Vatican press office.
During those same hours there came out on the front page of "L'Osservatore Romano" an editorial by Tornielli entitled "That 'penitential way' which unites the two pontificates," which insists on the harmonious appeal of the two popes — in the major documents of the respective pontificates and most recently also in the "notes" — to prayer, penance, and the conversion of hearts as the master path for overcoming the scandal of abuse.
The two things together sound like a signal of truce, at the beginning of Holy Week.
But once again, not a single word from Francis and his spokesman on the contents of Ratzinger's "notes" concerning the ultimate root of the scandal.
On this the divergence between Francis and Benedict remains intact. And unpredictable in its developments.
Published with permission from L'Espresso.