In terms of public relations own goals, this one was pretty spectacular.
The Vatican communications department has admitted to altering the photo of a letter sent by Benedict XVI where he praises Pope Francis.
In the letter the Emeritus Pope wrote that it was a “foolish prejudice” to see discontinuity between him and Francis, and that this Pope has “a theological and philosophical formation”.
But he also stated that he was not able to write a theological assessment of his successor, nor to being able to read an 11-volume work of theology dedicated to Pope Francis. For a man who turns 91 next month, that is hardly surprising.
The problem was that the Vatican did not release the last part of the letter when they put it out to journalists, and deliberately blurred the lines in the photo of the text that was released. The net result is a reinforcing of prejudices about a Vatican that “covers-up” bad news while handing a gift to Francis’ opponents who see conspiracies around every corner. The letter can now be read in full on Sandro Magister's blog.
Aside from the public relations blunder, however, there is a bigger issue at play and it centres on how the Church handles having two men in the Vatican wearing white and calling themselves Pope. Is it wise to ask a retired Pope to pass judgment on his successor? The respected Church historian Alberto Melloni commented that doing so sets a dangerous precedent even if the view is positive pointing out that an Emeritus Pope in the future may disagree vehemently with the sitting incumbent.
Elsewhere in the Church, retired bishops and former abbots generally keep their counsel about those who succeed him, and this principle is a wise one in the case of Popes. In the Anglican Church, for example, the repeated public interventions by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, were viewed as deeply unhelpful by his successor, Lord Williams.
Benedict XVI’s letter, read out to journalists by Vatican communications chief Mgr Dario Vigano, was supposed to be a rebuttal to critics of Francis who claim his pastorally focussed leadership of the Church is out of sync with the German Professor Pope’s doctrinally rigorous papacy.
Drawing in Benedict XVI’s support is also designed to shore up Francis against claims that he has broken with Catholic teaching by opening up a way for remarried divorcees to receive communion. Such criticisms are wounding, a senior Vatican official admitted this week.
The need to release the Benedict letter praising Francis revealed an insecurity. If the two papacies are in continuity, then why the need to underline it?
To his credit, the Pope Emeritus has let go of the past, stayed out of the limelight since and pledged his loyalty to and support of Francis. There is also no suggestion he is secretly undermining this Pope from his converted monastery in the Vatican gardens. While some have tried to drive a wedge between the two, Benedict has refused to align himself with the Pope’s critics, while Francis has described having his predecessor around as like having a wise grandfather nearby.
Benedict’s momentous decision to resign the papacy five years ago sent reverberations through the Church, and is something the Vatican is still getting used to. But if there is one lesson from the latest episode, it’s this: those who have stepped down from clerical high office should be allowed to enjoy retirement in peace.
Pic 1: 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. Photo by ABACAPRESS.COM/PA
Pic 2: The letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI to Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, is seen in this photo released by the Vatican March 12. The retired pope defends Pope Francis in the letter, which was written as a promotion for a book series titled, "The Theology of Pope Francis." (CNS photo/Vatican Media)