A wholly harmonious double act

A wholly harmonious double act Pope Francis pays a pre-Christmas visit to 91-year-old retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis and Benedict’s papacies are profoundly interwoven, writes Greg Daly


Claims this week that Pope Benedict had in 2005 wanted the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to serve as his Secretary of State and help clean up the Roman Curia may be surprising, especially to those who clutter and poison Catholic media with tales of antipathy between Pope Francis and his predecessor, but they are by no means implausible.

Indeed, veteran Vatican reporter John Allen noted in The Rise of Benedict XVI, written against the background of the 2005 conclave and detailing how Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn had been perhaps the key player pushing for the election of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that there had been a feeling during the conclave that Cardinal Bergoglio could draw support from the same well as Cardinal Ratzinger.

Some Latin American cardinals, he reported, had hoped to elect a cardinal from their own continent, home as it was to almost half the world’s Catholics, and had settled on the then Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“A Jesuit, Bergoglio has a reputation as a man of great humility, deep spirituality, and unwavering commitment to rather traditional doctrinal views,” Allen wrote. “In that sense, some of the Latin Americans felt, he could attract some of the Ratzinger votes but at the same time appeal to moderates attracted to the very idea of a non-European Pope.”


It was not to be, of course: Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, and a year later his old colleague Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone – and not Cardinal Bergoglio – became Secretary of State.

Despite John Allen’s comments back in 2005, since the election of Pope Francis in 2013 it has been an increasingly common line for some Catholic commentators that he and Pope Emeritus Benedict could hardly be more different, not merely in tone and style but in theology and in how they think about the Church.

In such a context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the retired Pontiff has become a totemic figure for those opposed to the current papacy, with, it would seem, a string of clerics looking to him for guidance as though his imprimatur matters more than that of his successor.

Having unconditionally promised his loyalty to his successor, whoever he might choose to be, on resigning in 2013, the Pope Emeritus has, however, been as good as his word.

“The adversaries of Bergoglio, often conservatives desperately seeking a word of Benedict that would sound as a criticism of Bergoglio, have unfailingly heard [from Benedict] that ‘there is one Pope, he is Francis’”, wrote Massimo Franco in the Italian Corriere della Serra some weeks ago. highlighting how the Pope Emeritus has consistently underlined not merely his loyalty towards the Holy Father but the need for unity in the Church.

In the end, the consciousness that the Church is and must remain united has always prevailed”

“The unity of the Church is always in danger, for centuries,” he said. “It has been throughout its entire history. Wars, internal conflicts, centrifugal pushes, threats of schism. But in the end, the consciousness that the Church is and must remain united has always prevailed.”

That Benedict has publicly spoken with immense fondness for Francis on several occasions, highlighting his “goodness”, is a matter of record, of course, but for the first Pope to resign his office in almost six centuries to stress both the perennial threat to Church unity and its ongoing necessity shouldn’t have surprised anyone seriously familiar with his history.

Indeed, as far back as 1977, in his first homily after becoming a bishop he called for unity in the Church, and in July 1981, in his first homily as cardinal, he specifically stressed the need for unity with the Pope.

“One cannot seek Christ except in the visible Church where we find Peter,” Elio Guerriero sums him up as saying in one of two recent books that are essential reading for anybody serious about the intellectual roots, apparent contradictions, and fundamental harmony of the papacies of Benedict XVI and Francis.

Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought, originally published in Italian in 2017, is the closest we are likely to get to an official biography of the Pope Emeritus: written by Guerriero and introduced by Pope Francis, it is drawn in part from lengthy interviews with Benedict, concludes with the transcript of a short interview with him, and crucially was read by him ahead of publication.

Perhaps even more valuable, given how little of Pope Francis’ writings from before becoming Pope are available in English, is Massimo Borghesi’s The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, likewise first published in Italian two years ago.

Together the books make for an extraordinary and indispensable double-act that should cause us to recall a curious episode from early last year.

February 2018 saw the publication of a series of short books about the theology of Pope Francis, with a letter from the Pope Emeritus being read from at the launch. Media attention focused on whether a photograph of Benedict’s letter had been altered, and the substance of what Francis’ predecessor actually said was lost in the ensuing storm.

“I applaud this initiative that wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation, while I have been only a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today,” the Pope Emeritus wrote.

“The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament,” he continued, before going on to say that he hadn’t been able to read the books in detail, and to criticise the choice of one of the series authors.

The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation”

That “rightly” speaks volumes. These books, the Pope Emeritus was saying, were merely showing something that was already clear to him, that Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, with his papacy having a deep inner continuity with his own.

One obvious way in which the two papacies overlap is in how both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis had been deeply influenced by the late Italian-German intellectual Fr Romano Guardini.

Fr Guardini’s influence on Benedict is well known, with his books The Essence of Christianity, The Spirit of the Liturgy and The Lord inspiring the German Pope’s Introduction to Christianity, The Spirit of the Liturgy and his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, and Guerrerio’s book brings out just how profound that influence was more generally.

That Guardini had been of interest to Pope Francis is a matter of record too, with his unfinished PhD thesis having been about him, but what Borghesi shows is just deeply the future Pontiff engaged with Guardini’s writings in subsequent years, with him becoming every bit as much a disciple of Guardini as Benedict has been.

“From [19th-Century Church scholar Johann Adam] Möhler to Guardini, one can follow a golden thread that leads up to Bergoglio,” Borghesi writes. “It sees Catholic thought as a synthesis of opposing polarities, overcoming the contradictory forms into which the poles, if isolated and left to themselves, tend to degenerate.”


The notion of a Christianity that pulls together apparent opposites is one that’s seen in, for instance, the writings of GK Chesterton – another influence both directly and indirectly on Pope Francis – who wrote in 1908’s Orthodoxy that the Church prefers a tension between opposites than a midway blend of them.

“It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey,” he wrote.

“All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.”


Chesterton had, in fact, inspired the conversion to Catholicism of Alberto Methol Ferré, a Uruguayan theologian whose thought Borghesi shows as having profoundly formed that of the future Pope Francis, and who believed the notion of the Church as a “people of angels in an earthly world” was a profoundly secular error.

Warning that both progressives and reactionaries tended to share the same flawed presuppositions, he diagnosed Catholic traditionalists stuck in defensive mindsets as frozen by modernity, conquered by the Enlightenment through the simple fact of defining themselves in opposition to it.

The real challenge, he argued, and one that the Church had achieved at the Second Vatican Council, was to transcend both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, overcoming them by taking into itself what was best in both of them.

This notion of pulling together opposites is, of course, implied by the Pope’s ancient title of Pontifex, literally meaning ‘bridge-builder’. Central to the role of the Pope is the need to build bridges and join together divisions, and for Francis, Guardini had shown a way to do this.

“He spoke of a polar opposition in which the two opposites are not annulled. One pole does not destroy the other. There is no contradiction and no identity. For him, opposition is resolved at a higher level. In such a situation, however, the polar tension remains,” Borghesi records Francis as saying of Guardini.

“Oppositions are helpful. Human life is structured in an oppositional form,” he continued, stressing that the challenge is to overcome limits, not to negate them.


One might think here too of how Pope Emeritus Benedict, as Guerriero records, described Jesus as avoiding the errors of Pharisees and Essenes on one side and Sadducees on the other, instead realising the best of both and setting a template for a Church that neither cuts itself off from society nor loses its identity within society.

I believe it is a ‘sign of the times’ that the idea of God’s mercy is becoming increasingly central”

This approach, Borghesi shows, is crucial for understanding how Pope Francis thinks about such distinctions as the individual and society, citizens and the state, localisation and globalisation, and even distinctions between theology and pastoral care.

“Not infrequently, a kind of opposition is constructed between theology and pastoral care, as though they were two opposing, separate realities, which have nothing to do with one another,” he quotes the Pope as saying. “Not infrequently we identify doctrine with the conservative, the retrograde; and, on the contrary, we think that pastoral care is an adaptation, a reduction, an accommodation, as if they had nothing to do with one another.”

Flatly rejecting false oppositions between pastors who are supposedly on the side of the people and academics who are supposedly on the side of doctrine, the Pope stresses the need to understand how our religious reflection and lived experience are intertwined in the lives of believers, adding: “The great Fathers of the Church, Irenaeus, Augustine, Basil, Ambrose to name a few, were great theologians because they were great pastors.”


This attempt to transcend distinctions between doctrine and life is echoed in the Pope Emeritus’ July 2017 address to Cardinal Gerhard Müller in which he said: “You defended the clear traditions of the Faith, but in the spirit of Pope Francis you also sought to understand how they can be lived today.”

The most controversial aspects of Pope Francis’ papacy have, of course, tended to revolve around Amoris Laetitia and how Church communities can help rebuild bonds with Catholics who have undergone civil divorces and remarriage. Francis’ teaching in Amoris can be usefully understood as an attempt to transcend and integrate apparent clashes between doctrinal theory and lived reality, but it is perhaps easier to understand it as being above all about mercy.

“The priority of mercy does not suggest an irenic character of the faith, an opposition between truth and mercy,” Borghesi spells out. “Mercy is not being placed ‘against’ the truth, but as a manifestation of the truth.”


It is worth pointing out that on March 16, 2016, just three days before the public unveiling of Amoris Laetitia by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Pope Emeritus spoke eloquently about the importance of mercy in the pontificates of Francis, St John Paul and himself

“I believe it is a ‘sign of the times’ that the idea of God’s mercy is becoming increasingly central and dominant,” he told Vatican Insider. “Pope Francis fully shares this line of thought. His pastoral practice finds expression in his continuous references to God’s mercy. It is mercy that steers us towards God, while justice makes us fearful in his presence.”

Pope Benedict may not, admittedly, have had much direct pastoral experience when he was called upon to become pastor of the universal Church – certainly not when compared to the years at the coalface his Argentine successor would be able to claim – but one thing that Guerriero’s book effectively demonstrates is that he always had a deep and thoughtful pastoral sensitivity.

Describing the death of Benedict’s mother in 1963, for instance, he says that “later on, when the German theologian would repeatedly invite his listeners or readers to consider the faith of simple people, he would have in mind the example of his parents”.

Noting that the Dominican Yves Congar had a similar experience and reached similar conclusions about the importance of ties passing though generations, Guerriero writes of the Pope Emeritus: “This is one of the arguments that Ratzinger would often use to stress the importance of the faith of simple people and the need to defend and protect it from excessive, gratuitous innovations.”

He details elsewhere in the book how Benedict had felt that the reform of the Mass had been driven by specialists and imposed on the faithful in a jarring way, with in practical terms a disregard for the pastoral needs and habits of ordinary people.

The most controversial aspects of Pope Francis’ papacy have, of course, tended to revolve around Amoris Laetitia’

Reading both books the same themes come up again and again, with both Popes reflecting deeply and harmoniously upon clericalism, threats to the most vulnerable, institutions losing their Christian spirit, ecology and economy, international cooperation, the rise of libertine atheism, the need for saints, and so much else.

Above all, both men uphold understandings of Christianity that see it as first and foremost a personal relationship with Christ. Indeed, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ 2013 ‘blueprint for the Church’ leans heavily on a principle eloquently pinpointed by Benedict in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”