A recently released interview he granted for a theological book represents Benedict XVI’s return to the theological arena. This way, Pope Francis’ pontificate has been given back a voice that perhaps was missing, thus showing the world what the role of the Pope Emeritus can really be today. Benedict XVI is able, in the end, to give a super partes opinion, from the highest point of view of his theological authority as well as the authority he gained from being a Pope. He knows theological problems in depth, but he is also aware of the issues in governing. Though he does not speak out often, thus maintaining his promise of staying silent, Benedict XVI still represents an important point of view. His words help to examine issues from a different angle.
Perhaps, this is the key reason that Pope Francis trusts Benedict XVI. Twice in recent times Pope Francis showed his respect for his predecessor and praised his pontificate. In this way he deconstructed the narrative on his own pontificate. This narrative was built on the notion that Pope Francis has broken with the previous pontificate. Pope Francis’ was a smart move. Praising Benedict XVI shielded Francis from some of his critics, especially those in some traditionalist circles that used to compare Benedict XVI with the current Pope.
What did Benedict XVI say in the interview? Three topics are quite important for reading the current times: truth, justification, and salvation for those who don’t believe in Christ.
First of all, Benedict XVI speaks about the issue of truth. As he said, mercy is undoubtedly important and much needed in the contemporary world. But – he stresses – it is also “important for humankind that truth lives among them, and that truth is believed and practiced.”
The notion of truth has always been pivotal to Pope Benedict. Speaking four years ago to his former students in the Schuelerkreis, the Pope Emeritus underscored that no one owned truth, but rather that truth advances toward individuals. Truth is not, according to Benedict XVI, the fruit of reciprocal concessions. It is not an object of negotiation.
The topic is critical today. Truth is often subjected to negotiations, even among people of the Church. It is widely said that Church must be in dialogue with the modern times, and even that it should adapt itself to modern times.
Benedict XVI does not support this view. The whole first part of the interview rejects the notion of the “Church from the bottom”. This issue was quite fashionable after the Second Vatican Council. The same discussions are current again, and were even developed a lot during the recent two- year- long Synod discussions. The praise given to the local bishops, along with the notion that “the people of God, united, cannot be mistaken” risk adapting everything to the spirit of the times. Is this really the Church Pope Francis is longing for?
Benedict XVI turns this perspective upside down. He explains that the Church is born from above, thanks to a convocation by Christ. The Pope Emeritus maintains that “the notion of a Church self-producing itself must be abandoned,” while it should be emphasized that “the Church becomes a community in the communion of the body of Christ.” Benedict XVI affirmed that the Church produces its faithful, and not that the faithful produce their Church. For this reason, sacraments are not a form of community socialization. “Christian faith is not an idea. It is life,” Benedict XVI writes.
In view of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation (the Pope signed it March 19, it will not be published before April 10), this reflection is noteworthy. The synod’s discussion dealt with the possibility for Catholics divorced and remarried to access the Sacraments, as a way not to exclude them from the ecclesial community. This rhetoric of exclusion was clearly exploited, for example by German bishops who gathered twice in Rome for meetings that have been labeled by the press as “shadow Synod.” In the end, Pope Francis clearly stated that Communion is not a right, and that integration must be favored, but without granting everyone the right to access sacramental Communion. The discussion was however limited to those terms. The slogan of the Synod is that “the language of the Church is not the language of exclusion,” as Cardinal Reinhard Marx put it during the 2014 Synod.
Benedict XVI’s recent words also challenge the principle that realities are more than ideas, which Pope Francis states as one of the four pillars of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.” This notion is quite widespread in Latin America, and can be considered a relic of liberation theology. Practiced Marxism has become a pragmatic Marxism, close to common thinking and tailored to foster the social development of peoples.
If integral human development is one of the Church’s aim – and the common good is the center of its diplomatic effort – certainly mere works are not the main way to achieve the goal. The Church’s works need an inspiration that comes directly from God.
Benedict XVI showed that a Church sociologically founded, one that is shaped upon an aggregation coming from the bottom, is not possible. Evangelization comes by way of attraction, and Benedict XVI never disagreed with this. But the attraction comes from the truth that shapes life, not from abstract sociological initiatives nor from pragmatic responses to social issues. “Land, home and work” are important for everyone, but this slogan is not the heart of the Church’s message. Even the appeals for a more just economics are not the heart of the Church’s message: they are a consequence of the doctrine of the Church. However, this kind of social message is always more highlighted from the media that want to emphasize what Pope Francis does and says as if this is the heart of his message. But if it were, it should be in fact a secular heart.
Instead, the heart of the Church’s message is the common glance toward Christ and the life that originates from faith in Him. Over and over again, Benedict XVI stressed this point as Pope. When he went to the Latin American Bishops Conference’s gathering in Aparecida, in 2007, he clearly wanted Christ to be the core theme of the gathering. The Aparecida document that resulted from that gathering is one of Pope Francis’ reference points. Benedict XVI even reaffirmed the centrality of Christ in Erfurt, in 2011, speaking in the monastery where Martin Luther had been an Augustinian monk. There, he underscored that the ecumenical dialogue could not count on an “ecumenical gift” (someone even expected the Pope would lift the excommunication of Martin Luther), nor on reciprocal concession. What he offered instead was the common glance toward God.
This means that faith is not part of a political agreement, though some benefits can result from an agreement. Pope Francis wants to go to the outermost bounds, at any cost, and this leads him to underestimate the outcomes of agreements: they are not part of faith, and some concession might lead to greater benefits in terms of faith. This reasoning can result in some unexpected outcomes. The Pope made the decision to meet with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and agreed not to make of the summit an ecumenical meeting. The Pope and the Patriarch signed a joint declaration, and this declaration seemed to set aside the difficult situation of the Ukraine. When the Pope became aware of this consequence, he repaired it with a letter given to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican “foreign minister”. After that move by the Pope, Moscow expressed its disappointment. In the end, when you get into the vortex of agreements, faith is set aside, and becomes part of the political solution.
This is one of the outcomes of the so-called primacy of conscience, which is probably the real hidden and subtle enemy of any religious thinking nowadays. The notion was developed by Martin Luther and was then overtaken by freemasonry (as documented by the Italian historian Angela Pellicciari’s books “Martin Luther” and “A History of the Church”). In the name of “humanism” and of a presumed freedom, freedom of conscience in fact leaves man alone with himself, in front of his conscience, without being aware of what is good and what is not, and without any possibility of a salvific relation with God. The discussion is wide, but the topic noteworthy: the Synod of Bishops also dealt with the topic.
Speaking about justification of faith, Benedict XVI notes that contemporary man does not think he needs to be justified by God for his sin. On the contrary, contemporary man thinks that God needs to be justified because He permits evil. In the end, modernity has resulted in an anti-God anthropocentrism. Even this notion is taken from Martin Luther, who was the first to develop it.
Benedict XVI goes further. He says that the discussion on justification is not worth it anymore. It is rather worth it to consider that contemporary man is sensitive to grace and forgiveness. Benedict XVI writes: “It is mercy that moves us toward God, while we are afraid of justice in front of him.” For this reason, contemporary man lives his need for justice as a need for love and gratuitous forgiveness. The Pope Emeritus thus concludes that “the topic of the divine mercy is apparently a new way to express the meaning of the justification through faith.” Benedict XVI then proposes to “reinterpret from the beginning” the doctrine of justification. He is conscious that the distinction between justice and mercy cannot be applied to God, as God is simple, has no composition, and is at the same time absolutely merciful and absolutely just. According to Benedict XVI, no unjust mercy can exist, not even at the human level. Mercy must be endorsed, he concludes.
Obviously, the endorsement of mercy cannot be interpreted without the lenses of truth. But this is not what happens. Some examples. Recently, Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, emphasized that priests are not obliged to wash the feet of women in the Holy Thursday celebration. With a recent decree, Pope Francis officially consented to women to be part of the celebration of the washing of the feet. The document had been widely discussed and was recently released. However, the document is not an obligation. It merely opens up a possibility. When Cardinal Sarah stressed this fact, however, those who have an agenda behind Pope Francis’ back started a sort of media campaign, accusing the Cardinal of “creating confusion”.
The same happened with Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. He is quite straightforward in explaining and defending the truth of the faith, and he often repeats that true mercy is expressed in truth. Any time he speaks out, Cardinal Mueller is accused of being outside of the new agenda for mercy. However, the real men of the Church (most of them compose the so-called “hidden Vatican”) claim their right to exercise the mercy of truth.
Many other examples can be provided. In fact, it seems that media, the secular world, and even a part of the Church are trying to reduce this pontificate to the application of a tiny agenda, composed of mercy, good words, some authority over the secular world and tremendous popularity. The Pope’s popularity is important for his effort to go to the peripheries, and to get in touch with people usually quite far away from the Christianity.
Back to Benedict XVI’s most recent interview. The Pope Emeritus also addresses the issue of people who do not know Christ. Benedict XVI explained that the Second Vatican Council definitively got rid of the idea according to which one who is not baptized cannot be saved. He added that this new rationale put the missio ad gents at risk. After the fall of this belief, those who are baptized relativized their Christian life: if living as Christians was not fundamental for the salvation of the non-baptized – they reasoned – why should it be so for the baptized?
These drifts must be avoided, according to Benedict XVI. The Pope Emeritus rejects the notion of “anonymous Christians” established by Karl Rahner. According to the German theologian, the necessary action to achieve salvation is to be open to what is completely different from us, toward unity with God. In the end – Benedict XVI explains – “being Christian coincides with being human, and in this sense every man who accepts himself is Christian, even though he does not know it.”
Benedict XVI labels this as a fascinating theory, which in the end reduces Christianity to “a pure, conscious presentation of what the human being is by himself”, thus not including “the dilemma of the change and renovation central in Christian religion”.
The Pope Emeritus even said that the notion that “all religions, each in its own way, are ways to salvation, and so their effects can be considered equivalent” cannot be accepted.
Being Catholic is real life, according to Benedict XVI. And it is noteworthy that in Benedict XVI’s words many of the motivations of some of the decisions of his pontificate can be glimpsed. Benedict XVI’s pontificate was perfectly linear, even for what concerns the decisions of his government: from the liberalization of Pius V’s Missal to the reform of financial transparency; from the establishment of a dicastery for the promotion of the New Evangelization to his decision to reform access to the seminaries; the tireless work to purify the Church from scandals, especially in the field of sex abuse by clergy; from the effort for ecumenical dialogue to the diplomacy of truth; from the new statutes of Caritas Internationalis to the reform of the Penal Code of the Vatican City State, which Benedict started and Pope Francis signed.
It was a silent reform, characterized from precise thinking that only a few understood. The aim was to create the unity of the Church starting from collegiality based upon mutual collaboration, with consciousness that only the truth and the true faith make of churchmen examples able to attract others to Catholicism. Churchmen must be examples of joy, because in the end Benedict XVI always preached the Gospel of Joy. And the joy of faith is the key to living in charity and truth.
Nowadays, the Church really needs this ideal. Pope Francis has probably understood it. And probably the role of the Pope Emeritus today is to give that “theological” plus that helps us to get into the deep issues and to reason about the issues of the Church. This perspective is rejected by people around Pope Francis, many of them with their own agenda.
Not by chance, Benedict XVI’s interview was biased by emphasizing the continuity on the issue of mercy between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Certainly, Pope Francis has taken on some of Benedict XVI’s issues. Like Pope Francis, even Benedict XVI wanted a poor Church. But much of Benedict XVI’s words were left unheard. In fact, Benedict XVI has still much to give to the Church. And that his words are sometimes highlighted is indeed very good for the Church.