“Three Popes, One Harmony in Christ: John Paul, Benedict, and Francis”

That is the title of an essay I wrote a few week ago for The Catholic Pulse, and which was posted yesterday at CatholicPulse.com. The basic point is to note and explain the shared vision of the three popes, especially since there seems to be a cottage industry operating for the sole purpose of emphasizing how different Francis is from St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Here is the opening of my essay:

One is known for his cerebral and philosophical approach to the Faith, having even been called a “mystic” by some. Another’s work is marked by elegant writing, deep attention to the Scriptures, and an emphasis on historical fact. The third man is praised for his direct, pithy, and even punchy approach to discussing Jesus Christ.

Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis? No, I am actually describing three of the four Evangelists: John, Luke, and Mark.

The point is not to align specifically each of three pontiffs with three of the Gospels and their authors, but to draw an analogy between the constant pitting of popes against one another, and the exercise — carried out in both academic and popular circles — of setting one or more of the Gospels up against another Gospel. For example, it has been commonly held for quite some time that the Fourth Gospel is the least historical of the four, with hardly any interest in the actual events in the life of Jesus. This perception is now pervasive at the popular level, despite it being largely abandoned by most Scripture scholars and historians.

Sources of Confusion

More to the point: There are some who focus — obsess, even — so much on the differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that they seem to lose sight of the bigger picture, sometimes either overlooking or giving short shrift to the many commonalities — thematically, theologically, historically — in the four Gospels. “It is as a choir of four,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “that the Gospel comes before the understanding of faith, as fresh today as ever.” A similar image can be used for these popes, singing together in harmony of the same faith, the same Lord, the same Church.

And yet various differences in personalities and styles evidenced by recent popes are sometimes grabbed onto and ripped from proper and reasonable context.  Those differences are used to shape a narrative (a mythology, in some cases) that does a disservice to anyone trying to better understand those particular men, the papacy, and the Church. This point, unfortunately, needs to be made repeatedly today, especially since the distance between  the lives and words of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, and the pervasive (and media-spun) mythologies about them can be so vast that one is tempted to resigned despair in gazing across the chasm.

One of the first and most important casualties of the “different is better” approach, especially when pushed beyond the limits of reality, are the many deep, vital continuities between the three popes and their pontificates. This is aided by three factors: the dominant culture’s obsession with “change” and cult of personality, a poor understanding of the nature and purpose of the papacy, and a woeful lack of familiarity with the actual statements and writings of the popes.

Read the entire piece at CatholicPulse.com.

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.