A letter from Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI to Msgr. Dario Viganò of the Secretariat for Communications about a series of books on Pope Francis’ theological thinking has been the occasion of a good deal of talk over the past two days. Pundits and professional Catholics in the chattering class — regardless of how they view either the Pope or the Pope-emeritus — seem to want both too much and too little from the letter. One can understand why, but that’s no reason to try and make the letter say what it does not say.
The brief and perfunctorily courteous note from the Pope emeritus was just that. In the middle of the letter, Pope Benedict wrote:
I applaud this initiative. It contradicts the foolish prejudice of those who see Pope Francis as someone who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation, while I would have been solely a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete lives of today’s Christian.
The little volumes reasonably demonstrate that Pope Francis is a man with profound philosophical and theological formation and are helpful to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences in style and temperament.
It says the sort of things that anyone could say and mean them: Francis went to school, after all, and so did Benedict. If Francis is more well known for his pastoral touch, Benedict was hardly lacking in that regard (his talks with children, for example, are remarkable for their gentleness and easy sensitivity). Francis succeeded Benedict, and they both succeeded St. Peter. There’s no office on earth with more “interior continuity” than that of the Roman Pontiff.
So, what happened? I don’t know for certain, of course, but here’s an educated guess based on what we know.
Msgr. Viganò wrote to Benedict XVI on January 12, and Benedict responded in a letter dated February 7. We may surmise from the fact of the exchange and glean from the context of Benedict’s response that the Prefect asked the Pope-emeritus for some lines regarding the volumes in the collection. Viganò got a response, which he read in its entirety at a press conference launching the collection on March 12.
If that were all there was to it, there’d not be much of a story. Viganò, however, also issued a press release announcing the launch, which included excerpts from the letter from the Pope emeritus but omitted a crucial paragraph. The omitted paragraph states:
I do not feel that I can write a brief and dense theological page about them because for my whole life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books that I had also truly read. Unfortunately, even if only for physical reasons, I am not able to read the eleven little volumes in the near future, all the more so in that I am under other obligations to which I have already agreed.”
That paragraph reads as though the Pope-emeritus is responding to a specific request: one for “a brief and dense theological page” about the books. It also puts the language of the quoted middle paragraphs in context. Through the lens of the final paragraph, omitted from the press release, the language of the middle paragraphs reads like an approximation — if not a rehearsal — of the request letter from Viganò. It’s the sort of thing one does in a letter, the purpose of which is politely to decline an invitation.
I do not think anyone can blame the Pope-emeritus for declining the Prefect’s invitation to endorse the series, any more than one might blame the Prefect for seeking an endorsement for the series from the Pope-emeritus. It can’t ever hurt to try, after all, and try Msgr. Viganò did.
Usually, when one makes such a request, and receives such a response, one shrugs one’s shoulders and moves on. That’s not what happened this time, though, owing in large part no doubt to Benedict’s expansive if perfunctory courtesy, and Viganò’s evident desire to contribute something constructive to a conversation in the Church that has been too often far too acrimonious.
It is almost certain that the Secretariat’s decision to release a doctored photograph obscuring the lines of Pope emeritus Benedict’s letter explaining that he had not read the books in the collection and therefore could not give them his endorsement, was one the Secretariat made quite earnestly and candidly.
It is doubtless owing to his frank disposition and candid mind, that the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communications of the Holy See did not consider that his choice of excerpts could possibly lead people to believe he was using Benedict to prop up Francis.