We have seen some heady times since Francis was elected to the See of Peter. The media have been astounded to find themselves in a budding romance with the Pope. A man, humble and kind, with a heart for the poor, a de-centralized vision of his own leadership, and a desire to move away from politicized agendas, in order to preach the Gospel to the world? We have never seen such a thing!
Of course, we have. Pope Benedict was all of those things. The much vaunted finery was no ostentation, but an expression of continuity with tradition. As a spiritual father, he sat and wept with the victims of the abuse crisis, a crisis which he did more than just about anyone to counteract. He famously said in his younger days that a first millennium model of papacy may be the model which leads to rapprochement with the Orthodox Church.
As for agendas and the Gospel, Benedict spoke the following words to the Swiss bishops in 2006, about the politicized controversial questions which are the bread and butter of secularized media:
If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith—a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.
He did more than say this, he sought to model for us this focus on the greatness of our faith in a return to the basics. The highlights of his papacy are his Jesus trilogy, calling us back to friendship with Christ, and his encyclicals on the theological virtues, where he reflects on the fundamental questions of what it means to live out this friendship, through love of God, through love of our fellow human beings, through hope in eternal life, and through abiding in the light of faith.
What the press has fallen in love with was already present in Benedict’s papacy. We who are sons and daughters of the Church, and loved Benedict as our Pope, know this, although the press does not. They saw only what they wished to see: a harsh and rigid authoritarian, a man concerned with theoretical formulations, not with the heart. This pains us, who see him as he is.
For Catholics, the Pope is not only Holy; he is also a Father. As children, we owe to him a posture of filial piety. When those who are outside the family, or the more wayward members of the family make blundering criticisms of him, then our hackles naturally raise, and we fulfill our duty of piety by coming to his defense. I made a small act of such filial piety soon after Benedict’s retirement was announced. Those who lamented that Benedict was not John Paul II made a deep mistake, in imagining that there can be only one kind of Pope who is good for the Church.
But not all such criticism is direct. Very often, the praise that the Left heaps on Pope Francis is spoken with an implicit sigh of relief. Thank God we no longer have to deal with that stodgy old Benedict! What a grouch he was, and how small-minded! The implicit condemnation of Benedict rightly riles us up, and we push back against this dual rejoicing that Benedict is gone and Francis is here.
This is, as I have said, an act of filial piety; but sometimes, we may push back too hard. Some Catholics and conservative commentators seem to see in Francis a real rupture with Benedict. As one example, Rod Dreher proposes a sharp division, an end of an era, and the beginning of “a long winter” of the Church, brought on by a “liberal Pope.”
But more importantly, it seems to me that we may be forgetting the hermeneutic of continuity. Pope Benedict proposed (through the Jesus trilogy and the encyclicals) that we need to return our focus to the basics. Grievously, the world did not have ears to hear him, and so he was maligned as an ideologue.
But they have now (whether for only a moment, we cannot yet say) heard the Ephphatha! Benedict's message is heard, spoken through the mouth of Francis. We must read Francis with a hermeneutic of continuity, or as Benedict said, a hermeneutic of reform, renewal in continuity with tradition. If the new form, the shape which Francis has given to Benedict's message is now enabling it to heard, let us rejoice! The filial piety we owed to Benedict is owed to Francis as well, and we do well to honor it, even if the new shape to the old message may sometimes jar us, may even make it more difficult to explain the Church's teaching. The fundamental question in evangelization is not what is explained, but what is heard. The newfound love the world has for the bishop of Rome situates the Church in a place where we have greater hope of being heard, even if we have to untangle a few knots to do it.