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Anti-Francis Critics Do Disservice to the Memory of Benedict and John Paul II

The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, followed closely by the death of Cardinal George Pell, brought the opposition to Pope Francis into the light of day. Benedict’s longtime secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein gave an unfortunate interview in which he seemed to suggest the late pontiff had serious misgivings about his predecessor, and posthumous writings from Pell had the same effect.

Criticizing a pope is nothing new. What made these criticisms of the pope from such highly placed prelates so remarkable was the entitlement they embodied. In both tone and content, these criticisms did not evidence manly disagreement but an almost childlike disgust that the last conclave had taken their toys away. The papacy belonged to them and to those who thought like them. John Paul II and Benedict, they were real popes because they agreed with Gänswein and Pell, and that is what real popes do.

Such claims are not only a disservice to Pope Francis. They are a disservice to the memory of Popes John Paul II and Benedict! It was telling that Pell, in a memo previously published anonymously but now revealed to have been authored by him, highlighted the controversial presence of an Amazonian statue to Pachamama at the Synod on the Amazon as a symbol of the doctrinal laxity of this pontificate. He forgot that Pope John Paul II had spoken fondly of Pachamama, and more generally about the need to inculturate the Gospel, during a homily in Cuzco, Peru in 1985.

Gänswein, who reportedly spent some time attending the seminary of the schismatic Lefebvrist movement in Écône, Switzerland, lamented Pope Francis’ revocation of Summorum Pontificum, the document by which Pope Benedict liberalized access to the Tridentine rite of the Mass. Gänswein also said Benedict regretted the decision. But what was not clear is whether or not Benedict recognized the necessity of the decision, regretting the necessity more than the decision.

I remember Vatican sources telling me that Pope Francis never would have overturned Summorum Pontificum without discussing it first with his predecessor. When Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodes, the document that ended the experiment in wider access to the old rite, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a high-ranking official at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained to Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden why it was necessary. The use of the traditional Mass “has gotten totally out of control and become a movement, especially in the U.S., France and England—a movement that aggressively promotes the Traditional Latin Mass among young people and others as if this ‘extraordinary form’ were the true liturgy for the true church.”

DiNoia, who had been brought to work at the CDF by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and had previously led Ecclesia Dei, the Vatican commission charged with dialoguing with the Lefebvrists, added, “Pope Francis is right to see in the repristination of the pre-conciliar liturgy at best a form of nostalgic dalliance with the old liturgy and at worst a perverse resistance to the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and solemnly confirmed in the teaching of an ecumenical council.”

In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Pope Francis confirmed that he would speak to his predecessor about thorny issues. “For me, he was a security. In the face of a doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery and ask,” he said, recalling his visits to the monastery where Pope Emeritus Benedict lived. “I lost a good companion.”

Similarly, on his flight back from Africa in 2019, the pope noted that criticisms of him overlook the fact that he often says the exact same things as his predecessors did. “For example, the social things that I say are the same things that John Paul II said, the same things! I copy him. But they say: the Pope is a communist,” the pope told the journalists on the plane.

One of the challenges for U.S. Catholics is to disentangle Pope John Paul II from his acolytes. Neo-conservatives in the United States such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, largely convinced the rest of the U.S. church that John Paul II was, for all intents and purposes, one of them, a U.S.-style neo-con. They dismissed his support for organized labor as a leftover from the role unions played in liberating Poland from the Soviet yoke. They cited one or two sentences in Centesimus Annus that seemed open to contemporary capitalism—it was 1991, and Francis Fukuyama had already declared the end of history!—but they neglected John Paul’s insistence on a robust role for the State in the regulation of economic conditions and attaining the common good. Massimo Borghese’s magnificent book Catholic Discordance, which I reviewed here, tracks the neo-con distortions of the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

Every pope has a different style, special concerns or interests but the points of continuity and commonality are also pronounced. These critics of the pope only show their own limits when they criticize Francis for something that their hero John Paul II also did. Remember when the Polish pope kissed a Koran? Can you imagine what would happen if Francis did that? The anti-Francis brigade is arguing itself into irrelevance and foolishness.  

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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