Benedict XVI has issued a sharp criticism of those arguing there is discontinuity between him and Pope Francis in a letter which the Vatican released on the fifth anniversary of Francis’ pontificate.
The Pope Emeritus writes that it is “foolish prejudice” to describe the Latin American pontiff as “just a practical man who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation” and Benedict as “a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete lives of today’s Christians.”
Mgr Dario Vigano, prefect of the Vatican’s communications department, presented the letter at a press conference on Monday evening launching eleven books dedicated to the “Theology of Pope Francis.”
It came as the 81-year-old Jesuit Pope marks five years since his election as the 266th Successor of St Peter, which has seen Francis win plaudits from ordinary believers, and those outside the Church, but also coming under heavy criticism from some Catholics.
Many of those critical of this Pope - who wants a more merciful, “field hospital” style Church willing to roll up its sleeves to help refugees and the homeless - have weighed him negatively with his German predecessor, a world renowned theologian with a vision of Catholics as creative minorities set against a world of moral relativism.
But Benedict XVI’s latest letter seeks to debunk this reading and quieten the opposition to Francis. He argues “there is interior unity” between the pontificates although admits there are “differences in style and temperament.”
The eleven books on Francis’ theology, Benedict adds, “rightly show” that the Pope is “a man of profound philosophical and theological formation.” The new works are published by the Vatican’s publishing house and were edited by Roberto Repole, President of the Italian Theological Association.
This is not the first time the retired Pope has shown public support of Francis, praising him in 2016 for “continuous references to God’s mercy” while a former secretary, Mgr Alfred Xureb, said Benedict pledged his “total obedience” after the conclave which elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the Chair of St Peter.
On 13 February 2013, Benedict XVI sent shockwaves through the Church and the world when he decided to resign the papacy, the first Pope to do so in 600 years.
After stepping down, he chose to live in a converted monastery in the Vatican gardens, continue to wear the white papal cassock (although without the mozzetta, a symbol of papal authority), and call himself Pope Emeritus.
Having two men in white calling themselves pope and living in the Vatican is unprecedented in Church history, but Francis has publicly embrace his predecessor and has likened to “having a wise grandfather at home.”
But attempts to drive a wedge between the two came when Benedict XVI sent a message to the funeral of German Cardinal Joachim Meisner where the retired Pope said the Meisner had learnt to “live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even if the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.”
Cardinal Meisner had been one of four cardinals who signed a letter and list of questions - titled “dubia” - to Francis asking for clarification about his family life document, “Amoris Laetitia.”
In January Benedict XVI, 90, praised Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, six months after he had been dismissed by Francis.
At the same time, there have been numerous public displays of warmth between Francis and Benedict XVI including a reception for the Pope Emeritus on the 65th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in the Vatican’s Sala Clementine hall.
“Let us hope,” Benedict told Francis, “that you will be able to continue with all of us on this path of Divine Mercy, showing the way of Jesus, to Jesus, to God.”
PICTURE: At the end of a consistory ceremony Pope Francis and a group of cardinals meet with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in a chapel at the Vatican on November 19, 2016 ©PA