Sandro Magister on the Gap Between Pope Francis and Popes Benedict and John Paul II

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Pope Francis


My go to guy when it comes to analysis of what is going on at the Vatican has always been Italian journalist Sandro Magister.  In a column today he explains the great gap between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors on the Chair of Peter:



There is nothing in this program of the pontificate that could turn out to be unacceptable to the dominant secular opinion. Even the judgment that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did “very little” in opening to the modern spirit is in line with this opinion. The secret of the popularity of Francis is in the generosity with which he concedes to the expectations of “modern culture” and in the shrewdness with which he dodges that which could become a sign of contradiction.

In this he decisively separates himself from his predecessors, including Paul VI. There is a passage in the homily that then-archbishop of Munich Ratzinger pronounced at the death of Pope Giovanni Battista Montini, on August 10, 1978, that is extraordinarily illuminating, in part on account of its reference to conscience “that is measured by the truth”:

“A pope who today would not undergo criticism would be failing in his task in the face of these times. Paul VI resisted telecracy and demoscopy, the two dictatorial powers of the present. He was able to do so because he did not take success and approval as the parameter, but rather conscience, which is measured by the truth, by the faith. This is why on many occasions he sought compromise: the faith leaves very much open, it offers a wide spectrum of decisions, it imposes as the parameter love, which feels obligated toward everything and therefore imposes great respect. This is why he was able to be inflexible and decisive when what was at stake was the essential tradition of the Church. In him this toughness did not derive from the insensitivity of one whose journey is dictated by the pleasure of power and by disdain for persons, but from the profundity of the faith, which made him capable of bearing the opposition.”


In confirmation of that which distances Pope Francis from his predecessors has come precisely the letter with which Ratzinger-Benedict XVI – breaking his silence after his resignation – responded to the book “Dear pope, I write to you” published in 2011 by the mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi.

Both of the past two popes have dialogued willingly with professed atheists and secular opinion leaders, but they have done so in very different forms. If Francis dodges the stumbling blocks, Ratzinger instead emphasizes them.

It should be enough to read this passage of his letter to Odifreddi:

“What you say about the figure of Jesus is not worthy of your stature as a scholar. If you pose the question as if ultimately nothing were known about Jesus and that nothing were ascertainable about him as a historical figure, then I can only invite you in a decisive way to make yourself a bit more competent from a historical point of view. For this I recommend to you above all the four volumes that Martin Hengel (an exegete of the Protestant theological faculty of Tübingen) published together with Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example of precision and of very broad historical information. In the face of this, what you say about Jesus is careless talk that should not be repeated. That in exegesis there have been written also many things of scarce seriousness is, unfortunately, an incontestable fact. The American seminar on Jesus that you cite on pages 105 and ff. confirm only once again that which Albert Schweitzer had noted with regard to the Leben-Jesu-Forschung (research on the life of Jesus), and that is that the so-called ‘historical Jesus’ is for the most part the reflection of the ideas of the authors. These maladroit forms of historical work, however, do not in any way compromise the importance of serious historical research, which has led to true and sure knowledge about the proclamation and figure of Jesus.”

And further on:

“If you want to replace God with ‘Nature,’ there remains the question of who or what this nature may be. In no place do you define this, and it therefore appears as an irrational divinity that does not explain anything. I would like, however, above all to note also that in your religion of mathematics three fundamental themes of human existence remain unconsidered: freedom, love, and evil. I am amazed that with a single comment you would dismiss freedom, which nevertheless was and is the foundational value of the modern age. Love, in your book, does not appear and also about evil there is no information. Whatever neurobiology may say or not say about freedom, in the real drama of our history it is present as a decisive reality and must be taken into consideration. But your mathematical religion does not acknowledge any information about evil. A religion that overlooks these fundamental questions remains empty.

“My criticism of your book is in part a harsh one. But frankness is part of dialogue; only this way can understanding grow. You have been very frank, and thus you will accept that I should be so as well. In any case, however, I consider very positively the fact that you, through your engagement with my ‘Introduction to Christianity,’ should have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, in spite of all the contrast, in the central field of interest convergences should not be entirely lacking.”


So much for the words. But to distance the last two popes are also arriving the facts.

The ban imposed by pope Bergoglio on the congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate against celebrating the Mass in the ancient rite has been an effective restriction of that freedom of celebrating in this rite which Benedict XVI had guaranteed for all.

It emerges from conversations with his visitors that Ratzinger himself has seen in this restriction a “vulnus” on his 2007 motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum.”


Go here to read the rest at Magister’s blog Chiesa.  I would suggest that you bookmark it.  It will come in handy during the turbulent days for the Church that are coming.

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  1. I have long been a reader of Sandro Magister, and will remain so. I had read the full version of this article Wednesday. Sandro has been a “fan” of Joseph Ratzinger for a long time, predating Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the See of Peter. Having said this however, I have found his accuracy not up to his usual snuff. He has got several things wrong ( hey, he/we are all human lol) I share this as just a precaution in taking everything he writes as gospel.
    One thing I have noticed is that he has found it very difficult,ult “to let go” of Pope Benedict and his ministry. This is not unlike parishioners finding it hard to let go of the former pastor and embracing the new one. It is a very human response.
    What Sandro has done in this article is to try to show how Pope Francis is so different from his predecessors. For example in giving us the wonderful comments about the papal ministry that Ratzinger preached at the death of Pope Paul’s death, Sandro has left an inference that what motivates Pope Francis is desire for acclaim and fear of rejection. Concerning the prohibition of the Extraordinary Form for that particular Franciscan Order (a very complex issue in itself), Sandro mentions that Pope Benedict has told visitors basically that that decision was a slap in the face. I would be stunned if a man of the caliber of Ratzinger would make such an utterance ( even IF he indeed felt that way) given the potential harm that this could bring to the peace and communion of the Church

    Sandro needs to return to Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity and dispense with his ” spirit of Benedict” interpretations

  2. “I share this as just a precaution in taking everything he writes as gospel.”

    Which applies to Popes as well.

  3. No less than Dante himself was upset when an old and ‘monkish’ pope of his time, Celestine, resigned. So upset was he that he put him in hell in his Inferno. Thankfully, history and the Lord were more merciful. He is now a canonized saint.
    On an even more fascinating note, Pope Benedict had a special love for him, making a special visit to the place oh Celestine’s tomb and made a poignant address there. This leads many to believe that Benedict had ‘resigning’ from the papacy much earlier than his announcement of resignation.

  4. @Botolph,

    You state that Sandro Magister “has got several things wrong” (which implies factual mistakes) but then you don’t mention a single such error. If you consider his opinions “wrong”, it only means that it is your opinions against his. And we don’t know for sure that Pope Celestine V is the nameless figure in Dante’s “Inferno” who made “the great refusal” – it is only a guess.

  5. I thought not to mention that. Celestine V is not named in Canto III, the “vestibule of Hell: the opportunists.”

    Some scholars alternately opined that that shade is Pontius Pilate.

    In addition to the deadly sins, betrayal of Jesus, Dante (allegory/fiction) places “poor damned souls” (Kipling) in Hell based on his ideas about their guilt for Church corruption, harm to Florence and affronts to his family’s and his political faction’s interests.

    John Ciardi is fairly convinced it’s Celestine. Here his footnote, N.B. the last sentence:

    “12. •who, in … Denial: This is almost certainly intended to be Celestine V, who became pope in 1294. He was a man of saintly life, but allowed himself to be convinced by a priest named Benedetto that his soul was in danger since no man
    could live and die world without being damned. In fear for his soul he withdrew from all worldly affairs and renounced the papacy. Benedetto promptly assumed the mantle himself and became Boniface VIII, a pope who became for Dante a symbol of all the worst corruptions of the church. Dante also blamed
    Boniface and his intrigues for many of the evils that befell the city of Florence. Celestine’s great guilt is that his cowardice (in selfish terror for his own welfare) served as the door through which so much evil entered the church.”

    Will any good come out of Benedict’s resignation?

  6. Sygurd,
    Although Dante and his family were Guelphs, the party favoring the pope over the Holy Roman Emperor, there is no doubt about Dante’s abhorrence of Npope Boniface, the pope at the time of his writing the Divine Comedy. Boniface, not one of the papacy’s greatest examples, became pope when Saint Celestine resigned the papacy.

    As to Sandro, there have been a couple of his columns that have proved off target over the last months- considering how on target he is, Ibdon’t believe that is a bad record. I was just saying be aware of this. More to the point is his love and devotion to the person and papacy of Pope Benedict. I kind of feel for him. As I wrote above is that he reminds me of a parishioner having difficulty letting go of the former pastor and really welcoming the new.

    Devoted to Benedict he needs to keep both Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic ( way of interpteting things) as well as Benedict’s non-imposing manner in mind

  7. @Botolph,

    “Although Dante and his family were Guelphs, the party favoring the pope over the Holy Roman Emperor, there is no doubt about Dante’s abhorrence of Npope Boniface, the pope at the time of his writing the Divine Comedy. Boniface, not one of the papacy’s greatest examples, became pope when Saint Celestine resigned the papacy.”

    True but how does this relate to my correction of your statement? If anything, it only reinforces my doubts – if Dante was an enemy of Pope Boniface (which he undoubtedly was), why would he place his victim – as you know, Boniface practically jailed Celestine after his election – in Hell? I also find your explanation of Sandro Magister’s supposed “errors” very subjective and unconvincing. If you can point out his objective mistakes, go ahead and do it. Mere innuendo won’t do.

  8. Sygurd, now two have responded concerning Dante and Celestine. These are comments and scholastic dissertations.

    As for Sandro, his columns are available. Go back over the past year and you will find some of his stories that did not pan out or in one case, he misinterpreted. Again these are comments and not scholastic discourse or a debating society. If you take the time to pour over his columns you too will see the few difficulties

  9. @Botolph,

    I see that you prefer to be stubborn insyead of looking objectively at the issues at hand. I’ve met this kind of response at other Catholic sites many times and my answer to it is “good-bye”.

Comments are closed.