ROME — If one were to take at face value everything reported in the press or floated on social media since Dec. 31, when Pope Benedict XVI died, and Jan. 12, two days after the surprise death of Cardinal George Pell, it would be easy to think that nothing less than the Battle of Stalingrad has broken out in the Catholic Church.
In the immediate aftermath of Benedict’s passing, interviews with his private secretary, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, began appearing along with leaked excerpts from a new book titled “Nothing But The Truth,” detailing Gänswein’s years at the side of the late pontiff.
Incendiary revelations have included:
- Pope Francis’s decision to restrict permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass, according to Gänswein, “broke the heart” of Benedict.
- By effectively dismissing him as prefect of the Papal Household while allowing him to retain the title, Gänswein said Francis had made him a “prelate cut in half.”
- After Benedict once told Francis that “strong and public resistance” was needed in the face of “gender philosophy,” Gänswein said, Francis not only didn’t respond but never asked for Benedict’s advice again.
- Gänswein recalled an episode in early 2018 when the Vatican wanted to publish a collection of essays by theologians about Francis’s teaching and asked Benedict to contribute a foreword. Benedict declined, among other things because one of the theologians in the volume was a German named Peter Hünermann who had been a critic of Ratzinger/Benedict.
That was more than enough for many Italian commentators to declare that a civil war is now underway between the “Benedict” and “Francis” camps in Catholicism, presumably kept under wraps as long as Benedict was alive but now on full public display.
“The Traditionalist Front opposed to Francis after the Exit of Ratzinger: Malcontents among the Cardinals and Moves toward a Future Conclave” ran the alarmist headline in Corriere della Sera, the country’s most authoritative daily, while La Stampa provocatively asked, “Who’s Behind Father Georg? There’s a Secret Plan to Stress Francis and Drive Him Toward Resignation.”
In what was taken as a thinly veiled rebuke to Gänswein, Francis during the celebration of Epiphany on Jan. 6 warned against the “fascination of fake news,” called gossip a “lethal weapon,” and said “one meets the Lord in humility and silence.” Prelates perceived as loyal to Francis, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper, Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, all were even more explicit, publicly suggesting it’s time for Gänswein to put a sock in it.
On Jan. 9 Francis summoned Gänswein to a private audience, and, while neither man has disclosed the content of their conversation, German media reported shortly afterward that Gänswein has been given until Feb. 1 to vacate the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on Vatican grounds where he lived with Benedict for the past decade.
Aftershocks of those bombshells hadn’t even faded when news broke late Jan. 10 that the 81-year-old Pell, long a hero to the conservative wing of English-speaking Catholicism, had died of complications following a hip replacement surgery in Rome’s Salvator Mundi Hospital.
Two points that emerged amid the cycle of commentary on Pell seemed to buttress impressions of a deepening conflict.
- Veteran Italian journalist Sandro Magister acknowledged what many in Rome regarded as an open secret, which is that Pell was the author of an anonymous memo on the next conclave published last year, in which he described the Francis papacy as “a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.”
- It also emerged that the last essay Pell wrote before his death was a piece for The Spectator characterizing Francis’s upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality as a “toxic nightmare.”
Faced with sensational headlines and menacing social media posts suggesting the Church is hip deep in fratricidal conflict, what’s the average Catholic to think?
First, it’s important to maintain perspective.
The Catholic Church has never had a situation before in which an emeritus pope coexisted in the Vatican with his own successor, and it was baked into the cake that the situation would create some tensions. That’s especially so since, in some respects, Benedict and Francis do embody differing theological and political visions.
However, what’s most significant here?
Is it the fact that, after Benedict’s death, his closest aide was able to identify three or four times when the two pontiffs didn’t see eye-to-eye? Or, is it the fact that in a deeply polarized world, two leaders representing different outlooks nevertheless spent an entire decade in close proximity, with basic respect and affection for each other, and without the situation spinning apart?
In other words, maybe the real takeaway isn’t that the Church has differences, but that, despite everything, it still has a remarkable capacity for managing and reconciling those differences.
Second, it’s important to remember that the disagreements that have come to light in recent days are nothing new. Conflicts among bishops, or between bishops and popes, is as old as the Church itself — read Galatians 2:11–14, for instance, for Paul’s famous rebuke of Peter at Antioch, which has the same approximate tone as Pell’s assessment of the upcoming synod.
Over the centuries, the Church has survived wars of religion, popes forced to flee into exile, rival popes excommunicating and even imprisoning one another, schisms and great divides, and virtually every other form of upheaval imaginable. It will certainly get past the comparatively mild turbulence of early 2023.
Third, it’s also important to remember that most ordinary Catholics, mercifully, aren’t terribly invested in church politics.
Stand outside a randomly chosen American parish this coming Sunday and ask Massgoers if they can name either Gänswein or Pell, and I suspect the overwhelming majority would respond with incomprehension. For most Catholics, Church is where they go to escape partisanship and acrimony, not to get more of it.
As a result, the sound and fury of the last few days may have produced a tsunami among Vatican-watchers and the chattering classes, but it’s probably nothing more than a mild ripple at the grassroots.
None of this is to say that the revelations of the last couple of weeks haven’t been fascinating, and, at some level, perhaps, even worrying. It is to say, however, that this too shall pass — and in the meantime, maybe staying off social media for a week or so might be healthy for both soul and stomach.