At long last, the question of Benedict XVI’s letter to Msgr. Dario Viganò, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, on the occasion of the presentation of a series of short books about Pope Francis’s theology, has been answered. Benedict declined to write a brief note introducing the series and criticized sharply the inclusion of German theologian Peter Hünermann, a strident liberal critic of John Paul II and Benedict himself. This follows a misleading presentation of Benedict’s letter by Monsignor Viganò at the presentation of the books, and a series of leaks purporting to show a very different letter. Obviously, Viganò wanted to quote part of the letter, in which the Pope Emeritus identifies an interior continuity between himself and Francis, no doubt in an attempt to silence conservative critics of the Pope. However, by omitting the passage critical of Hünermann’s inclusion in a city known for its leaks, Viganò made this conclusion inevitable.
The affair has been a slow-rolling debacle. First, the text released by the Secretariat for Communications after Monsignor Viganò quoted a bit of it, discussing the inner continuity between Benedict and Francis. This was, without a doubt, music to the ears of Francis’s partisans like social-media guru Massimo Faggioli and Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh. At last, they crowed, Benedict himself put paid to the idea that Francis’s pontificate represents a serious departure from his own. Then it turned out that the Secretariat for Communications had altered the letter in various ways and had to admit doing so, earning a pungent rebuke from the Associated Press. A second text emerged, with Benedict apparently (frankly) admitting that he had not read and likely would not read the books. Now, a third text has emerged presenting a very different letter: Benedict sharply criticized the inclusion of Prof. Peter Hünermann, a German theologian who, in Benedict’s assessment, “virulently attacked” papal teaching on moral theology during his pontificate. Benedict cites Hünermann’s opposition to Veritatis splendor in particular. This text appears to be the correct text and has been released by the Vatican.
One could discourse at length about the incompetence displayed in this affair, which only confirms the sense that Francis’s Secretariat for Communications, which has swallowed up the Holy See Press Office, is the worst public-relations office on earth. They completely bungled the Barros affair to the point where Francis’s personal credibility on one of the gravest matters in the Church was compromised seriously. (Remember all those bishops in the United States who had to resign in disgrace when their personal credibility on this issue was compromised?) And now we have had a disaster in slow motion involving nothing less than a letter from Benedict XVI. Now, it is obvious why the letter was selectively quoted in the first place—Viganò wanted to get that bit about interior continuity into the media. No doubt he wanted liberal journalists like Faggioli, Ivereigh, and the rest of that set to run with it. He wanted to quote Benedict to own the trads, as one might say on Twitter.
However, nothing about this pontificate has stayed secret. Almost every significant move has been leaked, analyzed, and responded to well in advance of the official publication date. The leaks range from the text of Laudato si’ to a press office summary of Amoris laetitia to the dismissal of Cardinals Burke and Müller to the coup against the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It would require a supererogatory act of charity to think that, in such an environment, a letter marked confidential from the Pope Emeritus would be treated as such—especially after one of Francis’s officials selectively quoted from the letter.
The whole affair is deeply embarrassing at every level. First, Benedict is not wrong when he criticizes the inclusion of Peter Hünermann in a series of books with official approval. Hünermann may well be influential with Francis, but this does not change the fact that he was deeply critical of John Paul II and Benedict and has tried to resist the directions of those pontificates. Second, Viganò got out over his skis when he tried to drag Benedict into the ongoing controversy over Francis’s pontificate. Viganò, despite his role as communications chief at the Vatican, is not really a participant in the polemics in the same that, for example, Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is. (Poor Greg Burke!) Finally, everyone had to know, under these circumstances, that the actual letter would leak sooner or later. Once again, one is left scratching one’s head. How could this have happened?
But one thing is certain: this not how Francis’s closest collaborators wanted to end his anniversary week.