Papal similarities outweigh differences

That Pope Francis is very different from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI hardly needs saying. What does need emphasizing, though, are the important ways the present pope and his predecessor are in sync with each other.

Only a year ago, on Feb. 11, Pope Benedict stunned the Church and the world by announcing he intended to resign. He cited age — he was then 85 — and failing strength as his reasons for leaving office. It marked the first time in nearly 600 years a pope had taken this unusual step.

Barely a month later, on March 13, the cardinals in conclave elected the Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to succeed Pope Benedict. He took the name Francis.

Much media commentary and analysis since then has focused on the dissimilarities between them. And much of it, coming mostly from “progressive” Church sources, has been to Pope Benedict’s disadvantage.

Papal differences

In the early days, there was chatter about the supposed awkwardness of having a former pope still on the scene and living inside the Vatican, as Pope Benedict chose to do, while a new one was on the job.

But as far as anyone can tell, the relations between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict are excellent. When the emeritus pope visited the Vatican guesthouse, the Casa Santa Marta, to share Christmas lunch with Pope Francis, that small gesture spoke volumes about their friendly feelings toward each other.

Obviously, they’re unalike in personality and style. Francis is down-to-earth and charismatic, while Benedict scholarly and reserved. Francis loves to interact with crowds, Benedict played to the crowd when he had to, but it was no secret that he was more at home in a library or a classroom.

There are noteworthy differences of substance as well. Benedict is a professional theologian who places a premium on theological ideas expressed in precise formulas.

Francis prefers a pastoral approach that puts less emphasis on dogma. Benedict practiced centralized papal governance, Francis likes consultation and collegiality.

Their views on liturgy are obviously different. Benedict sought to preserve the pre-Vatican II form of the Mass and even to place it on the same footing as the post-Vatican II form. Francis tolerates the old Mass for those who want it but celebrates Mass in the new form himself.

But granted all that, they also agree on many things, some of which are matters of major importance.

‘In the same line’

A German scholar, Manfred Lutz, who visited the former pope in December, quoted him saying his theological views are “very much in the same line with Pope Francis.” An instance of this is the ordination of women priests, which Francis has said isn’t open to discussion. Another notably concrete example was the pope’s action in confirming Archbishop Gerhard Müller as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, in January, naming him a cardinal.

Benedict XVI handpicked the German churchman as prefect of the congregation Benedict himself headed before becoming pope, and Cardinal-designate Müller is now taking the same kind of flack from Church progressives that Benedict once took.

Even more important is the agreement between Francis and Benedict on the disputed question of how to interpret the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis spelled out where he stands last fall. In a letter to Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, a retired Vatican diplomat and curial official, the pope praised a book he’d written on Vatican II for providing “the best hermeneutics” of the council.

Hermeneutics is the name for a system of interpretation. What the pope was saying was that Archbishop Marchetto’s version is the correct way of interpreting the council.

But the archbishop is a vigorous proponent of the view that Vatican II, rather than being a sharp break with the past, is in continuity with the pre-Vatican II Church on the essentials.

Significantly, that also is the view of Benedict XVI. In a famous address to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2005, he called Vatican II a council of “reform in the one … Church,” and contrasted this with the view of it as a “rupture” with the past. In other words: reform yes, rupture no. Pope Francis’ endorsement of this view was an implied rejection of the position of the so-called Bologna School, a group of scholars, responsible for a five-volume history of Vatican II, who champion the idea that the council was a sharp break with the past.

The late Giuseppe Alberigo, the most prominent figure of this school, argued against implementing Vatican II according to its official documents. What really matters about the council, he said, was its role in launching an era of ongoing change in the Church.

“This is necessarily a complex and gradual transition, and the council’s contribution was to create a foundation for this and to signal its beginnings,” Alberigo wrote in “A Brief History of Vatican II” (Orbis, $24). This interpretation of Vatican II is widely held among theological progressives.

In his letter to Archbishop Marchetto, Pope Francis accused himself of “error or imprecision” in speaking of these matters and thanked the archbishop for setting things straight.

He was apparently referring to remarks he’d made in his much-discussed interview last year with La Civiltà Cattolica and several other Jesuit journals saying the council was useful in supplying an up-to-date “reinterpretation of the Gospel.”

The long and short of it is that on this key question the pope has now taken steps to embrace publicly the understanding of Vatican II previously endorsed by Benedict XVI.

To the disappointment of progressives, that appears to rule out further papal talk of the council as a “reinterpretation” of the Christian message.

Social doctrine

On social doctrine, too, there is more continuity between Francis and Benedict than might be supposed.

Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on evangelization Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) has come under fire from supporters of neo-liberal economics for its views on matters like the redistribution of wealth to benefit the world’s poor.

But Benedict XVI also was sharply criticized for suggesting — in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) — that some kind of new international authority for “the management of globalization” be created as an instrument for promoting justice and helping the poor.

The supposed split between Francis and Benedict makes a good story while serving some people’s agenda. But in important ways there isn’t any split. Certainly there are differences, but these two men are also much alike.

Through the centuries of the Church, that’s how it commonly has been with a pope and his predecessor. No reasonable person should expect it to be different now.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.