Rorate Caeli

The Dam Burst!


Interview with Peter Seewald originally in (July 20, 2023, original in German)

"The latest developments (in the Vatican), however, point to a real breach of the dam" - "This flood could destroy what has still withstood" - interview with Pope biographer Peter Seewald about break of Francis with Benedict XVI. Mr. Seewald, on the occasion of the announcement of the newly nominated cardinals and the future prefect of the dicastery of the faith, Der Spiegel ran the headline, "Pope Francis Clears Up Benedict's Legacy." The Frankfurter Rundschau wrote: "Francis finally breaks with Benedict." Were you surprised by the headlines?

Seewald: Not really. On the one hand, they correspond to the wishful thinking of relevant media; on the other hand, it could be observed that Pope Francis' course becomes more radicalized with increasing age, or shall we say: unveiled. If then also a deserving collaborator like Archbishop Georg Gänswein is banished from the Vatican and at the same time a protégé is appointed as the supreme guardian of the faith, whose qualification for the most important office of the Catholic Church seems questionable, that is already an announcement. The future head of the Faith Authority, the Argentine Victor Fernández, defined his future task with the words, "a harmonious growth will preserve Christian teaching more effectively than any control mechanism."

Seewald: That sounds not only slippery, but downright grotesque in view of the dramatic crisis of the Church in the West. It must give one pause for thought that Pope Francis at the same time declares that in the past the dicastery "used immoral methods." How could this not be seen as a reference to former prefect of the faith Joseph Ratzinger? As well as an attempt to legitimize the change of course. In your latest book, Benedict's Legacy, you quote the words of praise that Francis had for his predecessor. He praised him as a "great pope": "Great for the strength of his intelligence, his contribution to theology, great for his love for the Church and for people, great for his virtues and his faith.

Seewald: I was very moved by that. And it is also apt. No knowledgeable observer would not recognize in Ratzinger one of the most important teachers on the chair of Peter. Today, however, one must ask oneself whether Bergoglio's confessions were just lip service, or even smokescreens. We all remember the warm words of Ratzinger at the Requiem for John Paul II, words that touched the heart, that spoke of Christian love, of respect. But no one remembers Bergoglio's words at the Requiem for Benedict XVI. They were as cold as the whole ceremony, which couldn't be short enough to avoid paying an inch too much tribute to his predecessor. What does that mean?

Seewald: Quite simply: If you are serious, you try to cultivate and use the legacy of a "great pope" - and not to damage it. Benedict XVI has set an example. In dealing with the legacy of John Paul II, he emphasized the importance of continuity and the great traditions of the Catholic Church, without at the same time closing himself off to innovations. Francis, on the other hand, wants to break out of continuity. And thus from the doctrinal tradition of the Church. But isn't there always a need for change, for progress?

Seewald: The Church is on the way. But it does not live out of itself. It is not a formless mass that can be shaped according to the taste of the respective leadership. For Ratzinger, renewal lay in rediscovering the core competence of the Church - in order to then become once again the source that society needs in order not to become spiritually, morally and mentally stagnant. Reform means to preserve in renewal, to renew in preservation, in order to bring the testimony of faith with new clarity into the darkness of the world. The search for what is contemporary should never lead to an abandonment of what is true and valid and to an adaptation to what is current. And that is different now?

Seewald: One has the impression. The appointment of the future prefect of the faith significantly expresses what the headlines quoted at the beginning mean by the destruction of Benedict's legacy. While Francis dumped Cardinal Müller, who had been appointed by Benedict, at the first opportunity, he is now hoisting someone into office in the form of his longtime Argentinean acolyte, who immediately announced a kind of self-dismantling. He wants to change the catechism, relativize the statements of the Bible, put celibacy up for discussion. Victor Fernández is considered the pope's ghostwriter.

Seewald: Yes, for speeches that are often quite meaningless, or also for the controversial encyclical "Amoris Laetitia". With building blocks that critics described as "illegible to wishy-washy" and that experts see hard on the border of heresy. Francis is still considered a "reformer pope."

Seewald: The beginning made you sit up and take notice. I was impressed by his commitment to the poor, to refugees, to the unbreakable protection of life. At the same time, the astonished public observed that Bergoglio did not keep many of his promises, once saying "ho" and once saying "hott", contradicting himself again and again and thus causing considerable confusion. In addition, there were the many instances in which he ruled harshly, deposed unpopular people and closed valuable institutions created under John Paul II. Bergoglio certainly saw other tasks for himself than Benedict.

Seewald: One cannot reproach him for that. However, the latest developments point to a real breach of the dam. And in view of the dramatic decline of Christianity in Europe, this could turn into a flood that destroys what has still held out. A strong word.

Seewald: The latest news from the Vatican reminded me of an essay by Georgio Agamben that has become famous. In his text on the "Mystery of Evil," the most discussed philosopher of our time brings Benedict XVI into play. As a young theologian, Ratzinger once distinguished between a church of the wicked and a church of the righteous in an interpretation of Augustine. From the beginning, he said, the Church has been inextricably mixed. It is both the Church of Christ and the Church of the Antichrist. However, according to Agamben, there is also the idea of the katechon... I beg your pardon?

Seewald: With regard to the 2nd letter of the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, this means the principle of stopping. A term that is also interpreted as "hindrance", for something or for someone who stops the end of time. Benedict XVI had been something of a "restrainer," Agamben said. Against this background, his demission inevitably evoked a separation of the "beautiful" from the "black" Church, that span in which the wheat is separated from the chaff. A steep thesis. But the pope emeritus apparently saw it similarly. He had to stay on, he answered my question as to why he could not die. As a memorial to the authentic message of Jesus, as a light on the mountain. "In the end, Christ will be victorious," he added. Did the development that is now emerging in the Vatican come as a surprise to you?

Seewald: From the first day of his pontificate, Pope Francis tried to distance himself from his predecessor. It was no secret that the two had not only opposing temperaments, but also opposing views of the future of the Church. Bergoglio knew he could not hold a candle to Ratzinger in his theological brilliance and nobility. He concentrated on effects and had the backing of the media, which did not want to look too closely, lest they also see that behind the pope, who was portrayed as open-minded and progressive, was a sometimes very authoritarian ruler, as Bergoglio was already known in Argentina.

Certain journalists make a business model for their books out of the staging of a "reformer pope": the "fighter in the Vatican" who defends himself against the "wolves," especially against the "shadow pope" Benedict and his reactionary clique. In truth, there never was a shadow pope. As pope emeritus, Benedict had avoided anything that could have even remotely suggested that he was reigning in his successor's pontificate. And if you wanted to look around for the "wolves," you see that they all fell by the wayside. It was said that no piece of paper fits between the ex-pope and the incumbent.

Seewald: Well, that was rather wishful thinking. There was the photo of the first meeting. Two men in white. Two popes, and both alive. That was a shock that had to be overcome. Bergoglio promoted the image of unity by occasionally speaking positively about his predecessor. Benedict trusted him. Conversely, Francis had no qualms about eliminating one of his predecessor's pet projects with the stroke of a pen. What do you mean by that?

Seewald: The Apostolic Exhortation "Summorum Pontificum." It liberalized access for the classical liturgy. Ratzinger wanted to pacify the Church with it, without questioning the validity of the Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1969. "It is in the handling of the liturgy," he declared, "that the destiny of faith and the Church is decided." Francis, on the other hand, called traditional forms a "nostalgic disease." There is, he said, a "danger" of backwardness as a reaction to modernity. As if trends, longings, needs could be controlled by decrees of prohibition. The Bolshevists had already tried that in vain. Allegedly there was a poll according to which the majority of the world episcopate was in favor of a withdrawal.

Seewald. That's not true. On the one hand, only a few bishops answered the survey at all, and on the other hand, as far as I know, they had by no means spoken out against Benedict's "Summorum Pontificum" by a majority. The results were never published. And how classless that the Pope Emeritus had to learn about the change from "L'Osservatore Romano". For him it was like a stab in the heart. He never recovered from it in terms of his health. Shortly after his death, the whole world was then able to follow how Bergoglio sped up his pace even more. You are referring to the Gänswein case?

Seewald: Bergoglio did himself no favors with that one. It makes him untrustworthy. One cannot, with the Bible in hand, constantly speak of brotherly love, mutual respect and mercy and at the same time trample these virtues underfoot. The brutality and public humiliation with which a deserving man like Gänswein was dumped is unprecedented. Not even the custom of giving a word of thanks to a departing employee, as is customary in the smallest company, was observed. The media speak of an "act of revenge" against Gänswein.

Seewald: But revenge for what? Because here someone, while observing loyalty, did not show a subservient mentality, but that maturity which Bergoglio always demands? Because he published a book that is important and necessary in view of the continuing misrepresentations of the work and person of the German pope? A book in which Francis, by the way, comes off anything but badly? The pope downgraded Gänswein, but he meant the one for whom Gänswein stands. And his legacy, which one wants to push aside, as one pushed aside his closest collaborator. For the translation of Gänswein's book into German, Herder-Verlag, as I was told from publishing circles, was not allowed to use the translators for the Vatican as usual. The job had been strictly forbidden to them. Once again on the personal details of Fernández, the future prefect of the faith. When he was to become rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina there were reservations.

Seewald: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had doctrinal reservations, and the Congregation for Education considered him unsuitable for such an important leadership position. He was then pushed through by the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires: Jorge Mario Bergoglio. As pope, Bergoglio now clears the way for him to Rome by redefining the duties of a prefect of the dicastery of the faith. It would not be so much about preserving doctrine, but about a growing understanding of the truth, "without committing to a single form of expression." In plain language: without committing oneself.

What is needed, Francis wrote to Fernández, is not so much the office of a guardian, but that of a promoter of the charism of theologians, whatever that may mean. Reality is always more important than the idea. In plain language: what is in demand at the moment. Above all, Fernández should "take into account the most recent Magisterium" - that is, that of Francis. Bergoglio had already watered down in advance that article on the organization of the Dicastery issued by John Paul II, which dealt with the protection of the "truth of faith and the integrity of morals." How is Francis' word about the "immoral measures" on the part of the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be seen?

Seewald: That is infamous. The statement is meant to discredit the high level of the Congregation under Cardinal Müller and Ratzinger in order to make relativism hopeful. It is bad that one ties thereby to the reading of Church-hostile media of the "Panzerkardinal" and "Hardliner" Joseph Ratzinger.

Der Spiegel immediately picked up the template and once again spoke of the former "faith policeman" who was also responsible for the withdrawal of Hans Küng's teaching license. Complete nonsense, just like the vast majority of the common clichés about the former cardinal. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger saw himself as anything but a persecutor, and certainly not as someone who operates with "immoral methods."

Immediately after he took office, offending bishops, theologians, and priests were no longer excoriated, as had been the practice before, but in significant cases were invited to Rome to deal personally with differing views. Ratzinger strengthened the rights of authors and for the first time gave theologians accused of dogmatic deviation the right to defend themselves. There was also never, as one black legend has it, a formal ban on silence against Leonardo Boff. The dispute was also not about liberation theology, but about Boff's questionable Christological statements. Instead of a church from above or a church from below, Ratzinger recommended a "church from within."

Seewald: Especially in unstable times, he explained, the church must think twice as much about its own. Only through its resolute ethics could it become a true counselor and partner in the difficult questions of modern civilization. Unlike other theologians, judged the liberal Munich theologian Eugen Biser, "who discarded stone after stone from the old edifice because it did not fit into their new edifice," Ratzinger always remained "faithful to the origin." He took seriously Jesus' eternal warning to his church, which Christ expressed in a dramatic word to Peter according to the Gospel of Mark: "Away with you, Satan! You want to bring me down; for you have in mind not what God wants, but what men want." It is said that Fernández initially refused the appointment as prefect of the faith.

Seewald: Only when the Pope assured him that he would not have to deal with sexual abuse in the Church did he give his okay. Again, a clear difference in orientation. While Fernández abdicated responsibility for the abuse, Ratzinger, as prefect, pulled it into his domain because he saw that elsewhere the offenses were swept under the table and the victims left alone. Fernández, however, is no stranger to this issue. The Argentine newspaper "La Izquierda Diario" reported about the future prefect of the faith that as archbishop of La Plata he had covered up at least eleven cases of sexual abuse by priests "in various forms." The best-known case, it said, was that of former prison chaplain Eduardo Lorenzo, who evaded arrest by police by committing suicide in 2019. Is coming to terms with abuse a shadowy side of Bergoglio's pontificate?   

Seewald: Two examples: Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels hit the headlines in 2010 for covering up child abuse by priests when he was archbishop, and then for covering up for a bishop who abused his own nephew. That didn't stop Pope Francis from appointing him a synodal member of the Family Conference in Rome in the fall of 2014. Danneels was one of the driving forces of the so-called "St. Gallen Mafia," a group of cardinals who wanted to push Bergoglio through as pope as early as the 2005 conclave; which almost succeeded.

Francis also had no problem appointing Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who was known to be an abuser, to Vatican bodies. Benedict XVI had taken action against McCarrick, but Francis entrusted him with negotiations with the People's Republic of China. These led to an agreement that subordinated the underground Catholic Church, which Benedict XVI was still promoting, to the state authorities. Since then, banners with inscriptions such as "Love the Communist Party" have hung in China's churches. In early April of this year, the Communists appointed a new bishop for Shanghai without involving the Vatican. Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin protested; Pope Francis, on the other hand, decided to "cure the irregularity in canon law," in other words, to nod off the case. How lasting an effect can the election of the new candidates have, who will be created cardinals at the consistory in September?

Seewald: In the meantime, about 70 percent of the future pope's electors have been elevated to office by Francis. "Unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI," analyzed Vatican observer Ludwig Ring-Eifel of the KNA, "Francis has largely called such men to the College of Cardinals who are on his theological line." The College of Cardinals is becoming "more and more a reflection of his thinking and his background."

What is striking is not only the sharp increase in the proportion of Hispanics, but also the age of the new purple bearers. With mostly around 60 years of age, they should not only influence the next conclave, but sometimes also the one after that. However, as is well known, the Holy Spirit still has something to say about this. And many who are rejoicing today that Francis is getting rid of Benedict's legacy could be weeping bitterly about it tomorrow. THANK YOU for the interview!