Benedict vs. Francis vs. Vatican II: In Benedict’s Recent Words

In my previous post I discussed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter to Bavarian clergy on “the Church and the scandal of abuse.” I explored the value of theological exploration in responding to human problems, and I gave some answers to the question of what theologizing might have to do with the abuse of children.

As part of that post, I argued that we should keep in mind the context of Benedict’s piece. He’s writing specifically for German clergy. Thus, laypersons and lay Americans might struggle to understand and relate to the historical and socio-cultural underpinnings of his ideas.

Another bit of context comes out in the piece itself. Some interpreters read Benedict’s piece as a criticism on the Second Vatican Council, and on the Francis papacy as well. They politicize successive papacies and try to give historical accounts of a “Golden Age” of the Church, particularly the Church in America. Some read Benedict’s papacy as superior to Pope Francis’ and the pre-Conciliar Church as superior to the Church after the Second Vatican Council. Benedict himself challenges these accounts.

Benedict vs. Vatican II

Benedict does criticize certain aspects of the “post-Conciliar Church.” He writes, “In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life.” He does write of a particular role played by the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council.

Some Catholic traditionalists read this and interpret Benedict as providing a sort of Rahner-esque history, in which the Church has reached its “truest” form in a Hegelian history that ended in the 1950’s. They read Benedict as blaming the Second Vatican Council for the downfall and loss of the Church today. Benedict writes, however, that the conciliar attitudes were diverse, and he criticizes some, rather than all, of them. He writes, “In many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world..” Many, but not all.

Indeed, in his exposition on the importance of the Eucharist, Benedict argues that the Second Vatican Council provides an answer to the denegrations that ran rampant among clergy abusers. He writes that the “Second Vatican Council was rightly focused on returning this sacrament… to the center of Christian life and the very existence of the Church.” Further, in his discussion on canon law, Benedict notes that developments since the Council and continuing under the papacy of Pope Francis have significantly helped the Church in responding to the abuse crisis.

Benedict vs. Pope Francis

Just as we cannot pit Pope Benedict against the Second Vatican Council, neither can we simply paint him as a rival to Francis. We see that he praises the “further reforms” of Pope Francis in addressing penalties for abuse. He also opens his essay by stating that he contacted the Holy Father prior before publishing his text, and Benedict ends his piece with: “At the end of my reflections I would like to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today. Thank you, Holy Father!”

Indeed, those who attempt to pit these popes against one another denigrate the Church into a primarily political institution, where those in power alternate between opposing poles. Immediately after warning that he worries “The Church is dying in souls,” Benedict writes: “Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms.”

Though Benedict worries about this denigration in that it excludes the divine nature of the Church, one might also look at the extent to which our obsession with political realities might push us to interpret succeeding papacies as socio-political rivalries. The most politicized American Catholics tend to be those most committed to a narrative of competing papacies and competing ages of the Church. Benedict’s letter, in part, warns us about the reduction of the Church that comes with these narratives.


Posts in this series:


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 


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