CNN thinks about some of the strategic silences in comments by the two popes in Rome

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Here is an understatement: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have certainly given journalists a lot to think about in the past year or so.

They have both made news with what they have said or written.

Both have also made headlines with what they have declined to say, with the questions they have refused to answer. Pope Francis? Click here. Pope Emeritus Benedict? Click here. Yes, a lot of this has to do with the life and affairs of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Now, Daniel Burke of CNN has taken those silences into think piece land: “The silent Popes: Why Francis and Benedict won't answer the accusations dividing their church.”

The overture is long, long, long and opens up all kinds of doors that journalists are thinking about right now:

(CNN) One rarely leaves his monastery high on a hill in Vatican City. The other speaks freely -- too freely, critics say -- but has vowed silence on this matter, for now.

Two men, both clad in white, both called Holy Father, and now, both facing questions about a crucial facet of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis: What did they know, and when?

Amid the onslaught of news about the scandal, it can be easy to overlook the historical novelty and high drama of this moment in the life of the church: For the first time in 600 years, there are two living popes, one retired and one active, whose fates may be intertwined, even as many of their followers are at odds.

It has been nearly a month since a former papal diplomat published a dramatic letter asserting a "homosexual networks" and widespread cover-ups within the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

The diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded that Pope Francis resign for allegedly lifting sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had placed on an American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct.

Whether those sanctions actually existed is a question that Francis and Benedict seem uniquely qualified to answer. But neither the 91-year-old German scholar, nor the 81-year-old Argentine Jesuit has said a word about them.

Supporters of both popes cast their silence in spiritual terms, forms of discipline and faith that truth will be revealed, eventually. Others say Benedict and Francis are loath to descend into a mudslinging fight with a former employee. Some wonder if more mundane strategies may be at work, too, such as self-preservation.

Yes, this piece mentions McCarrick. It also contains the word “seminarians,” a subject that has been avoided by many mainstream reporters.

Burke makes it clear that some Catholics are mad at Francis. Some are mad at Benedict. Some are mad at both popes, for different reasons.

The bottom line: Catholic life is strange and strained when there are two popes alive at the same time — especially when one is an articulate defender of traditional Catholic doctrines and the other is a Jesuit who focuses lots of attention on “discerning” where the doctrines should be modernized.

The Francis side of this equation gets lots of inks. Even those critical of parts of Burke’s essay will appreciate that Benedict’s role in all of this is taken seriously.

Thus, the end of the piece, including some commentary from a conservative American Jesuit (yes, they exist), Father Joseph Fessio:

"When it comes to Benedict, it's damned if you did, and damned if you didn't," said Paul Elie, a Catholic journalist who has written about the relationship between the two popes.

"If Benedict knew about the allegations against McCarrick and didn't put him under sanctions, that's not good," Elie said. "And if Benedict didn't know about the allegations, that's not good either."

But Fessio and other Catholics say Francis should answer Vigano's charges, instead of making vague remarks about "scandal" and "division" during morning homilies at Casa Santa Marta, his Roman residence.

"He's attacking Vigano and everyone who is asking for answers," Fessio said. "I just find that deplorable. Be a man. Stand up and answer the questions."

Many church watchers expect that Francis, or perhaps the Vatican's press office, will eventually, answer Vigano's charges. The question is, when?


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