Pope Benedict Protects Pope Francis’ Right Flank


ROME—The reign of

Pope Francis,

which reached its five-year point on Tuesday, has been marked by contrasts in style and substance with that of his predecessor Pope

Benedict XVI

—most controversially, in the current pope’s more lenient approach to divorce.

But in comments published Monday, retired Pope Benedict played down differences with his successor as a matter of “foolish prejudice,” and insisted on an “interior continuity” between them.

Five years after Pope Benedict’s historic decision to step down, the unprecedented presence of a retired pope in the Vatican has proved an unlikely asset to his more liberal successor. In an institution that prizes tradition, their friendly coexistence is a potent, though mostly silent, assurance of stability for conservatives distressed by recent changes.

“Having Benedict around functions politically like a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval with a constituency that is skeptical of Francis,” said

John L. Allen, Jr.

, a biographer of Pope Benedict and the president of Crux Catholic Media. “Every time Benedict wraps him in a warm embrace, whether it’s in a picture or letter, it does Francis real good with conservatives.”

Since the new pope first stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s on a rainy evening five years ago, the differences with his predecessor have been stark.

Pope Francis is more outgoing and accessible to crowds, and shuns the traditional vestments that Pope Benedict often wore. The Argentine pope’s public statements, frequently off-the-cuff, are characterized by folk wisdom and earthy informality rather than his predecessors’ carefully composed reflections on theology, philosophy and history. The current pope is by all accounts a hands-on leader who delves into the details of the Vatican’s workings, whereas Pope Benedict largely delegated management to others.

But in excerpts released by the Vatican of a letter to

Msgr. Dario Viganò,

head of the Vatican’s communications office, Pope Benedict dismissed as caricature the image of “Pope Francis as merely a practical man lacking any special theological or philosophical education, whereas I am supposedly just a theorist of theology, with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today.”

The most substantive area of difference between the men has been in the area of theology, specifically moral teaching. Pope Francis has largely muted the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which Pope Benedict himself ran for more than two decades under

St. John Paul II,

when it was the frequent source of definitive statements on weighty matters including sexual and medical ethics.

Pope Francis has raised conservative concerns with statements on those topics, especially his comment on gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”

The most prominent doctrinal question in the current pontificate has been over divorce. Pope Francis has encouraged leniency toward divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage. Pope Benedict had reaffirmed the traditional practice, which forbids people in that situation to receive Communion unless they abstain from sexual relations with their new spouses.

Debate over that question has polarized the church under Pope Francis, with bishops taking divergent stands and one prelate, U.S. Cardinal

Raymond Burke,

warning that the current pope could be subject to a “formal correction” if he doesn’t make clear that his statements are in line with orthodox teaching.

Pope Benedict hasn’t commented publicly about his successor’s teaching on divorce. But in a letter to Msgr. Viganò, commenting on a new series of academic studies of Pope Francis’ theology, the retired pope paid tribute to his successor’s “profound philosophical and theological education” and said the new books showed the “interior continuity between the two pontificates, notwithstanding all the differences in style and temperament.”

Mr. Allen said that the retired pope’s statement didn’t signal total agreement with his successor, but focused on the “big picture while leaving space for haggling over the details.”

On Tuesday, Cardinal

Pietro Parolin,

the Vatican secretary of state, told reporters that the retired pope’s comments were an opportune rebuttal to claims of a “rupture between the two pontificates.”

When Pope Benedict announced that he would be the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years, some experts in church law speculated that the existence of two living popes might inspire divided loyalties or political maneuvering, Mr. Allen said.

But the retired pope, who promised his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the next pope before stepping down, and who has since likened his current state to that of a cloistered monk, has been sparing and discreet in his public statements, and never other than complimentary of his successor.

A comment by Pope Benedict’s secretary, suggesting that the two men shared leadership of the church in a spiritual sense, briefly aroused controversy in 2016, but Pope Francis brushed it off, insisting that “there is only one pope.”

For his part, Pope Francis, 81 years old, has been conspicuously respectful and attentive to his predecessor. He has compared Pope Benedict, who turns 91 on April 16, to a “wise grandfather,” and regularly visits him at his residence, a former convent in Vatican City, on special occasions such as Christmas.

In 2016, Pope Francis told reporters that he had heard rumors of disgruntled people complaining about him to the retired pope, “but he sent them packing!”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected]

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