How Ratzinger Sees Francis: “He Is the Man of Practical Reform”
The reigning pope as described by his predecessor: “So different from how I had known him.” And also very different from him
by Sandro Magister
ROME, September 14, 2016 – There are few references to Pope Francis in the book-length interview that Joseph Ratzinger published in recent days. But all of them are significant.
To begin with, Ratzinger says that he had never imagined Jorge Mario Bergoglio as his successor.
He knew him, of course,” thanks to ‘ad limina’ visits and to correspondence.” But he believed him to be different from how he saw him later, after his election as pope:
“I knew him as a very decisive man, one who in Argentina spoke with great resoluteness: this is to be done, and this is not to be done. His cordiality, his attention to others in encounter are aspects of him that were not known to me.”
Ratzinger dismisses the rumor according to which Francis consults him often. “There’s no reason for it,” he says.
Bergoglio – he notes, for example – did not send him an advance copy of his agenda-setting apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”:
“But he wrote me a personal letter. . . very affectionate, because of which I nevertheless received the apostolic exhortation in a particular form. And also bound in white, which is normally done only for the pope. I am reading it. It is by no means a brief text, but it is beautiful and compelling. Of course it is not entirely his own, but there is much that is personal.”
However – he says – “on some things he has sent me questions, including for the interview that he granted to ‘La Civiltà Cattolica’. In these cases I express my opinion.”
And in any case he concludes, emphasizing the separation:
“Overall I am very content not be consulted.”
Ratzinger also denies seeing a rupture between the pontificate of Francis and his own, but he clarifies:
“Naturally some points can be misunderstood so that afterward it is said that now things are going an entirely different way. If individual episodes are taken and isolated, disagreements can be manufactured, but this does not happen when one considers the whole picture. The accent may be placed on certain aspects, but there is no disagreement.”
If there is one innovation with Pope Francis, it is of this kind:
“Yes, there is a new freshness in the bosom of the Church, a new gladness, a new charism that is offered to men, this is indeed a beautiful thing.”
Further on Ratzinger presents the difference between him and his successor like this:
“Everyone has his own charism. Francis is the man of practical reform. He was an archbishop for a long time, he understands the task, he was superior of the Jesuits and also has the mindset to rollup his sleeves for actions of an organizational nature. I knew that this was not my strong suit.”
But he insists that the priority of the current pontificate must continue to be the same as that of the previous pontificate:
“The important thing is to preserve the faith today. I consider this to be our central task. Everything else is administrative questions.”
In any case, he avoids saying that with Francis a new era has begun:
“Temporal divisions have always been decided a posteriori. That is why I would not hazard to make this statement now. . . . I no longer belong to the old world, but in reality the new one has not yet begun.”
That’s all. There is no more on Pope Francis in the book. And the little that is there, as has been seen, focuses – intentionally? – only on a practical role, as promoter of organizational change, not doctrinal and perhaps not even “pastoral,” except within the limits of an empathetic engagement with persons.
On any disagreements that might be found between him and his successor, Ratzinger cautions against misunderstanding individual phrases and seizing upon isolated episodes.
Perhaps because he sees in the Jesuit Bergoglio a trait shared with another famous Jesuit, the German theologian Karl Rahner, one of whose works from the 1970’s Ratzinger describes as follows, in a passage from the book:
“It was so tortuous, as is the case with the texts by Rahner, who on the one hand represented a defense of celibacy, and on the other sought to leave the problem open for further reflection. . . It was a typical text à la Rahner, formulated through a tangle of affirmative and negative phrases that could be interpreted both in one sense and in the other.”
But it would be too much to read here an allusion to the current interpretive controversy “both in one sense and in the other” over the postsynodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”
In any case there is not the slightest reference in the book to comparisons with Pope Francis on the terrain of doctrine and dogma.
But there are a couple of observations concerning Ratzinger’s current sensitivity to certain theological issues, which bring to light a substantial distance with respect to Bergoglio’s sensibilities:
“I now find many words of the Gospel, because of their greatness and gravity, more difficult than in the past. . . We realize that the Word [of God] is never fathomed in all its meanings. And precisely some words that express the wrath, the reproof, the threat of judgment become more disquieting, more striking, and greater than before.”
And concerning the ultimate realities, death and eternal life, which constituted a central part of his theological production and on which Ratzinger says he continues to reflect:
“Of course. Precisely my reflections on Purgatory, on the nature of pain, its meaning, and then on the communal character of happiness, on the fact that we are immersed in the great ocean of joy and love, for me are very important.”
There is also a passage from the book-length interview in which Ratzinger comments critically on the highly contested encyclical of Paul VI “Humanae Vitae,” without retracting his objections at the time:
“In the context of theological thought back then, ‘Humanae Vitae’ was a difficult text. It was clear that what it said was valid in substance, but the way in which it was reasoned out for us at the time, for me as well, was not satisfying. I was seeking a broader anthropological approach. And in effect, Pope John Paul II later combined the natural law angle of the encyclical with a personalistic vision.”
Curiously, therefore, on “Humanae Vitae” Bergoglio appears more “conservative” than Ratzinger, according to the comments of pure praise that the current pope has repeatedly dedicated to that encyclical so far, for example in the March 5, 2015 interview with the director of “Corriere della Sera” at the time, Ferruccio de Bortoli:
“Everything depends on how ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted. Paul VI himself, in the end, urged confessors to be very merciful and attentive to concrete situations. But his brilliance was prophetic, he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.”
One last observation concerning the address on Islam by Benedict XVI in Regensburg, an address that effectively cannot be imagined as coming from the mouth of Pope Bergoglio.
Asked if he had struck by accident upon that citation of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos which, extrapolated from the address, unleashed the violent reactions of many Muslims, Ratzinger responds:
“I had read this dialogue of Palaiologos because I was interested in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam. So it was not an accident. It was truly a matter of a dialogue. The emperor at that time was already a vassal of the Muslims, and yet he had the freedom to say things one could no longer say today. So I simply found it interesting to bring the discussion to bear upon this conversation of five hundred years ago.”
Well said: “The freedom to say things one could no longer say today.”
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.