So here is the journalism question I offer to you today: What does a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI written on Nov. 23, 2017, have to do with the written testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, which exploded into public view at the end of August, 2018?
If you look at this as a matter of logic, the answer is clear: Nothing.
Well, I guess one could argue that Benedict could have had a prophetic vision of what Vigano was going to do. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. How about you?
Anyway, in this case it really helps to report the contents of the Benedict letter and look for the news contained therein.
That’s what the team at Crux did, under this recent headline: “Benedict XVI hits back at critics in leaked letters.” Note: The retired pope is speaking to his own critics.
Now hold that thought, while we look at the amazing and bizarre New York Times report about the same Benedict letters. The headline proclaimed: “In Private Letters, Benedict Rebukes Critics of Pope Francis.”
You see, everything has to be about conservative Catholics attacking Pope Francis. Got that? Here is the overture, which opens with — you got it — the Vigano letter:
ROME — The remarkable letter last month calling on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly shielding an abusive American cardinal also served as a public call to arms for some conservative Catholics who pine for the pontificate of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. For years now, they have carried his name like a battle standard into the ideological trenches.
Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.
In private letters published on Thursday by the German newspaper Bild, Benedict, who in retirement has remained studiously quiet through the controversies over Francis’ fitness to lead the church, says that the “anger” expressed by some of his staunchest defenders risks tarnishing his own pontificate.
“I can well understand the deep-seated pain that the end of my pontificate caused you and many others. But for some — and it seems to me for you as well — the pain has turned to anger, which no longer just affects the abdication but my person and the entirety of my pontificate,” Benedict wrote in a Nov. 23, 2017, letter to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller of Germany. “In this way the pontificate itself is being devalued and conflated with the sadness about the situation of the church today.”
Now, where is the hook in that language that justifies a story saying that the retired pope spoke out in defense of Pope Francis and in opposition to his conservative critics?
Well, there isn’t one. Benedict is discussing attacks on his own papacy.
Think about this as a matter of logic. Yes, it’s safe to say that many or most of the conservative Catholics who are upset about Pope Benedict’s decision to retire would also be upset about the more progressive, or at the very least vague and mysterious, theological approach of Pope Francis.
However, that is not what is being discussed in these letters. The issue here is what Benedict — who has worked hard to remain neutral during the fierce Francis-era infighting — actually wrote in these letters to one of his admirers in Germany. He is saying: Stop shooting at me. It’s not helping.
Now, contrast the approach takin in that Times headline and overture with this material at Crux, which isn’t anywhere near as sexy — but has the advantage of being accurate:
ROME — In a series of letters leaked to the press, retired Pope Benedict XVI chastised a German cardinal for criticizing his decision to resign from the papacy, saying an understandable pain as a result of the move has turned into “anger” against him, and has devalued his papacy.
The letters, obtained by German newspaper Bild, were addressed to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, 89, one of four “dubia” cardinals who challenged Pope Francis’s teaching on marriage and family following the publication of his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
President emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, Brandmüller was a firm supporter of Benedict XVI during his papacy, however, he has long been vocal in his criticism of Benedict’s decision to resign in 2013.
Thus, Benedict hit Brandmüller with the “pain has turned into anger” quote that was also included in the Times piece.
The Crux team also offered this balanced view of the contents of the letters
While papal supporters might see Benedict’s letters as a rebuke of Francis’s critics, many of whom felt betrayed by the German pontiff’s resignation, those who have been critical of Francis might take Benedict’s phrase “melted into sorrow” about the current state of the Church as a criticism of the current pontificate.
Now, this approach to the letters raises another interesting question: Would a logical list of the current “papal supporters” include the editors of The New York Times?