It’s a regrettable tendency to praise a person whilst implicitly or explicitly putting someone else down. We’re seeing a lot of that at the moment in the favourable press Pope Francis is rightly receiving for his personable and down-to-earth style. The human mind seems to resist nuance, and too often defaults to unnecessary dichotomies. I happen to believe that Benedict XVI is every bit as humble as his successor. Humility comes in many shapes and sizes. As someone who has long been judged negatively by the clothes I wear, I find it ironic that the people most likely to judge me negatively on that basis are very quick – in other contexts – to say that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
One of the phrases that Benedict XVI is going to be remembered for is his teaching about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” When he first spoke of this in 2005, he didn’t, in fact, put those three words together. He did, rather, speak of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” which was how many of us learnt about Vatican Council II. “Out with the old, in with the new” was what we were taught; the pre-conciliar Church was bad and outdated, the post-conciliar Church is good and new. You got the impression that there were two Churches. Benedict urged us to eschew such false dichotomies, and to interpret Church history with a “‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.” One Church, always renewing and reforming [itself]: ecclesia semper reformanda.
I think that during the years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate we thought that this was the time of reform and renewal in continuity with the tradition of the Church. And certainly there were many aspects of that: especially with regard to the Sacred Liturgy, and the continuing flourishing of newer congregations of consecrated life.
However, I believe that now is especially the moment when we should be taking Benedict XVI’s teaching to heart. Instead of interpreting Pope Francis’ pontificate as a rupture and discontinuity, we should be seeing it as reform and renewal in continuity with what was before. Before we get carried away and throw the baby out with the bath water, which is what tends to happen when you interpret reform as “rupture and discontinuity” – as sadly happened all too often after Vatican II – we should take a deep breath and see what the Holy Spirit is saying in this moment of continuing renewal.
I also suggest that it’s far too early to be writing the history books on the pontificate of Pope Francis, or Benedict XVI for that matter. Pope Francis may well have a different look, different clothes, different residence, and different style than his predecessor, but it’s the same petrine ministry, same Church, and same faith in which the successor of Saint Peter is strengthening his brothers and sisters. Rather than pitting Francis and Benedict in opposition, why not rather just give thanks for the gift of two unique popes, who each put (and are putting) their personalities and lives at the service of the Church, to lead all of us closer to Christ?