At First Things, Matthew Schmitz has an excellent piece, “Burying Benedict,” that begins:
Though Benedict is still living, Francis is trying to bury him. Upon his election in 2013, Francis began to pursue an agenda that Joseph Ratzinger had opposed throughout his career. A stress on the pastoral over against the doctrinal, a promotion of diverse disciplinary and doctrinal approaches in local churches, the opening of communion to the divorced and remarried—all these proposals were weighed and rejected by Ratzinger more than ten years ago in a heated debate with Walter Kasper. For better or worse, Francis now seeks to reverse Ratzinger.
Schmitz then goes on to outline the course of the debate between Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper over communion for bigamists. It is an interesting recitation of the facts, especially since Schmitz observes that some of the polemical language in Kasper’s 2001 reply to Ratzinger—a reply following several years of back-and-forth, official and otherwise—was introduced by a translator and is not present in the original German text.
But, such interesting minutiae aside, Schmitz presents an overwhelming case that, by siding with Kasper and his supporters, the Holy Father puts himself squarely in tension with Benedict. Indeed, Francis’s language is straight out of Kasper’s various pronouncements on the question of communion for bigamists. The argument for continuity between Amoris laetitia and the various documents of the Holy Father’s predecessors is, we think, rubbished entirely by Schmitz’s brief summary of the case. Francis manifestly sides with Kasper, and Kasper was clearly arguing against the magisterial position of John Paul and Ratzinger. The only way to argue for continuity is to point to the language at the beginning of paragraph 300 and argue that Amoris laetitia doesn’t actually do anything except urge pastors “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, … the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.” But such an argument is ridiculous in the face of the various instructions of the bishops’ conferences that have received varying degrees of approval from the Holy See.
This argument, which has been hashed out repeatedly over the last couple of years, takes on renewed force in light of Benedict’s brief note praising Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, which is (or was) intended as an afterword to an edition of Cardinal Sarah’s book on silence. There, Benedict wrote:
Cardinal Sarah is a spiritual teacher, who speaks out of the depths of silence with the Lord, out of his interior union with him, and thus really has something to say to each one of us.
We should be grateful to Pope Francis for appointing such a spiritual teacher as head of the congregation that is responsible for the celebration of the liturgy in the Church. With the liturgy, too, as with the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, it is true that specialized knowledge is necessary. But it is also true of the liturgy that specialization ultimately can talk right past the essential thing unless it is grounded in a deep, interior union with the praying Church, which over and over again learns anew from the Lord himself what adoration is. With Cardinal Sarah, a master of silence and of interior prayer, the liturgy is in good hands.
(Emphasis supplied.) The note is, of course, exactly the sort of thing Ratzinger has written many times over the years, and it is precisely the sort of polite, appreciative note that theologians write for each other all the time. That Benedict is the pope emeritus is, of course, a feather in Cardinal Sarah’s cap, but it hardly seemed significant to us. However, Cardinal Sarah’s many critics have gone ballistic since the publication of the letter. Cardinal Sarah’s conservative theology and evident piety drive them wild even without an endorsement from Benedict. Yet their fury was especially keen, since this was seen as an effort by Benedict to interfere in active Church politics. The progressives want to erase Benedict’s liturgical reforms and go back to the 1970s. Cardinal Sarah does not. The letter, therefore, was seen by the progressives, whose enthusiasm for progressive causes is almost solipsistic, as Benedict’s intervention in the debate.
But was it? Certainly the Holy Father’s effort to hand Walter Kasper the victory in the communion-for-bigamists debate fifteen years after the last significant exchange is no less an effort to erase Benedict’s legacy in the Church. This point is not lost on Schmitz, who concludes:
In the face of this challenge, Benedict has kept an almost perfect silence. There is hardly any need to add to the words in which he resoundingly rejected the program of Kasper and Francis. And yet the awkwardness remains. No pope in living memory has so directly opposed his predecessor—who, in this instance, happens to live just up the hill. This is why supporters of Francis’s agenda become nervous whenever Benedict speaks, as he recently did in praise of Cardinal Sarah. Were the two men in genuine accord, partisans of Francis would not fear the learned, gentle German who walks the Vatican Gardens.
And so the two popes, active and emeritus, speaking and silent, remain at odds. In the end, it does not matter who comes last or speaks most; what matters is who thinks with the mind of a Church that has seen countless heresies come and go. When Benedict’s enraptured words are compared to the platitudes of his successor, it is hard not to notice a difference: One pope echoes the apostles, and the other parrots Walter Kasper. Because this difference in speech reflects a difference in belief, a prediction can be made. Regardless of who dies first, Benedict will outlive Francis.
(Emphasis supplied.) As is so often the case, we are reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” which provides us the title for this post.
But we are left wondering what if?
What if, one clear morning in Rome, Benedict woke up and decided that enough was enough and issued a clear statement, written in the limpid prose he is capable of, against Kasperism. Now, it is clear that such a statement would be from Benedict as private doctor, not as pastor of the universal Church. It would have no juridical effect. Certainly the greatest living theologian of the age is entitled to comment upon the greatest theological controversy of the day. Indeed, given Benedict’s talents as a theologian, to say nothing of his prestige, one might say he has a positive duty to make known both to the pastor of the universal Church and the laity his opinion (cf. can. 212 § 3). However, if his polite praise of Cardinal Sarah is seen as a dangerous intervention worthy of attack, one can only imagine that the progressives would be convulsed with paroxysms of rage, their fury would be incandescent. The man who owed them nothing from day one would have broken his nonexistent promise of silence. But what then?