Catholic Church

[OPINION] Benedict and Francis: The 2 hands of the Church

Noel Asiones

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[OPINION] Benedict and Francis: The 2 hands of the Church
'The two popes are allies, not foes. Please make no mistake about it.'

There is a scene in the surprisingly well-received Netflix 2019 biographical drama, The Two Popes, where Francis, the soon-to-be elected pope, and the aging soon-to-retire Benedict watched the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final between their national home teams, Germany and Argentina, together. It seems a fitting conclusion to the message the movie seeks to communicate: the two popes must face their disconcerting past and find common ground to forge a new path for the future of the Church that they both love and serve. 

Although only an imagined encounter between them against the background of the beautiful game of football, I am reminded of this scene in the wake of recent attempts by some individuals and groups to draw an understanding of the Church developed by Joseph Ratzinger as opposed to that which Francis is championing. The former is usually portrayed as the once progressive, but eventually became the standard bearer for Catholic conservatives. At the same time, the latter is perceived as a progressive and liberal outsider, often accused of sowing confusion on doctrinal and moral issues. For the sake of theological clarity and in fairness to the two popes, we offer our  three-fold response to make sense of the many differences between them that may have been conditioned, like we all do, by their personalities, by their life experiences, by socio-cultural situations, and by that to which they have been exposed.

First, as the leading lay American ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz pointed out, each pope brings something of his person into the papal office. On the one hand, Joseph Ratzinger was a professional theologian who brought his profound theological acumen, baroque aesthetic sensibility, and personal shyness into his pontificate. Jorge Bergoglio, on the other hand, has brought his humility, Ignatian spirituality, and refreshing informality into his papacy. Given his long academic career and service as Prefect of the Vatican Office responsible for preserving Catholic doctrine, Ratzinger was particularly drawn to the doctrinal and moral issues facing a Church shaken by history and modernity. Given his exposure and experience as a bishop in Argentina and where he had been, Bergoglio was particularly drawn to the pastoral and practical needs of the marginalized members of the Church and society.

Second, the papal office also shaped their unique exercise of ecclesiastical authority and power, which tend to define their outstanding legacies and personalities. This is also important to bear in mind if the perceived greater emphasis on the difference than their similarities is to be properly appreciated. In addition, the papal names they have chosen are closely tied to their understanding of who they have become and what they believe about the rights and duties of the Chair of Peter. Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War and thus placed his ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples and nations. Bergoglio chose to be called after St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the same created world “with which we do not have such a good relationship.” Only time will tell if, like Peter, the first pope who was named “rock” by the Church’s founder, has lived up to their chosen name.

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Third, and based on the Catholic principle of complementarity, it is safe to say that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the two popes have with all their mind and heart tried to strike a happy balance between the bipolar of the Catholic faith: human and divine, scripture and tradition, faith and reason, universal and local, unity in diversity, and so on. Benedict calls this the hermeneutics of continuity and reform. The two popes must have believed in both. On the one hand, while the latter Benedict seemed to have leaned more on the aspect of constancy and continuity with tradition as that which has been received, it must not be misconstrued that he is opposed to change or progress. In his book, Principles of Catholic Theology, Benedict succinctly said: “Salvation comes only through change or metanoia.”

On the other hand, while Francis seemed to have tended more on the reform side of tradition as the process of handing on the faith, it must not be misconstrued either that he, as his detractors accused him of heresy and schism, wants to abolish the old to make the essentials of faith marketable to a secular and relativistic world. As a pastor, his overarching rule is mercy over principles in a Church that embraces rather than excludes. In his encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, Francis said what could have defined his approach to the papacy and the two extremes of the Scylla of continuity and Charybdis of change in the Church: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Thus, though the two Popes may have significantly differed in style and approach to leading and serving the Church, they have received and executed a similar mission, which is to reshape the Church, through their actions and words, to stay relevant and effective in its evangelizing task in the contemporary world. Like our two hands, the two popes are allies, not foes. Please make no mistake about it. –

Noel Asiones is an academic researcher from a leading university in Manila. He is a practitioner of public theology, which is the engagement and dialogue between institutional religion and society in the marketplace of ideas.

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