Death of Benedict XVI: Analyses and Commentaries (2)

February 01, 2023

The death of Benedict XVI at the age of 95, on December 31, 2022, followed by his funeral in St. Peter's Square in Rome on January 5, sparked a multitude of analyses and comments in the press. It is helpful to group this mass of documents into four sections, so as not to get lost in them. The first two were discussed in the previous article.

3. What Follows After Benedict XVI’s Death?

In La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana of January 7, Stefano Fontana raises the question of Benedict XVI’s legacy. According to him, this heritage “represents an era, that of the Council and the Post-Conciliar one” which consists in “picking up the whole question from where he [the pope emeritus] left off, not carrying out a change of era, continuing to hold back dissolute tendencies and continuing with the reconstruction.” For Francis, on the other hand, “the debate between the Council and the post-Council is finished.” He “intends to leave behind this era which, according to him, would see the Church still in a position of conservation and not of exit.”

Stefano Fontana affirms: Francis “wants to be post-post-conciliar. It is true that he often refers to the Council, but precisely to say that it is no longer the case of dwelling on it and on the era it inaugurated. The debate between the Council and the post-Council is over for him.”

“The clearest proof of this position of his, among the innumerable that we could recall, is the motu proprio Traditionis custodes which established that the “liturgical question” is over and, with it, the question of an entire era. But this was precisely the main question that Benedict XVI felt should be left open.”

Does this mean that the role of “timer” or “speed bump” played by Benedict XVI died with him? The Italian journalist thinks that “Benedict and his legacy will influence the Church more than before, more now, after his physical death, than before, when he was still alive. We all remember his last two public interventions: one on abuses by the clergy and the other on the priestly celibacy together with Cardinal Sarah. These two interventions ‘stopped’ some negative processes and prevented decisions that had perhaps already been made but were frozen. With his death this will no longer be possible, but this work, from now on, will be continued by those who have taken charge of his legacy in these days.”

Stefano Fontana’s hypothesis raises a question. Should we see “the hermeneutics of reform in continuity” promoted by Benedict XVI in 2005, as capable of concretely producing only a “slowdown” of an inexorable fall?

Like a parachute that slows down the descent, but does not prevent the fall to the ground, only making it less brutal? This legacy of Benedict XVI does not conform to the program of the pontificate of St. Pius X: “Restore all things in Christ” (Ep. 1:10).

The January 8 edition of The Caminante Wanderer, referring to the German newspaper Die Tagespost, considers that, “with the death of Benedict XVI, a new stage began in the pontificate of Francis, indeed of the Church herself. And the reason is that Ratzinger acted as a sort of buffer that dampened the conservatives' fury against Bergoglio's excesses.”

“Or, as Cardinal Müller put it, conservatives could go to the Mater Ecclesiæ monastery for healing. Now there is no buffer, and there is no longer a nursing home. Confrontation is inevitable…”

However, according to the Argentinian commentator, the current context modifies the balance of power: “The death of Benedict XVI has come late; the story would have been very different if it had happened five or six years ago. Now, Bergoglio is a worn-out and weakened pontiff, and all those around him in more or less close circles are waiting for him to die.… As specialists have been saying for a few months, the Vatican smells like a conclave.”

“On the other hand, Francis' extremely authoritarian style of government created enemies everywhere, even among those who share his progressivism. Let us think, for example, how the the apostolic constitution he promulgated last Friday [Ecclesiarum communione, January 6, 2023], by which the diocese of Rome intervenes de facto and demands that his vicar, for example, consult him about the appointment of all the parish priests or the ordination of each one of the seminarians.”

Moreover, Francis “does not have the support of the most powerful progressive forces either: the German episcopate and, with it, that of other countries in its orbit. And he does not have popular support either. The people, the ‘faithful people,’ are not close to Pope Francis. It is enough to see the meager public turnout that any of his public appearances manages to gather.”

"Bergoglio, then, is weak because he is old and sick; because his pontificate has worn itself out with much ado about nothing, because his style of government has earned him countless enemies, and because he lacks popular support and devotion.”

The Wanderer, however, does not see a reaction emerging from the side of the conservative prelates whom it quotes pell-mell: “Cardinals Burke, Sarah; bishops like Viganò or Schneider, may be the best known. But I would also include in that group Cardinals Müller, Pell [who has just rendered his soul to God on January 10], Erdö, and Eijk, and a good number of American bishops.”

This is no conservative reaction, because among these prelates there is not a leader capable of uniting them. The progressive press is currently designating a man to be brought down, however: Msgr. Georg Gänswein, the former private secretary of Benedict XVI. The launch of his book Nient'altro che la Verità [Nothing But the Truth, My Life Alongside Benedict XVI], placed him in the spotlight. 

The Argentinian site considers that the raising up of a leader would require “the occurrence of an explosive event.” He sees it in the possible appointment of a chemically pure progressive to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “According to comments in Vatican circles, the real and rabid intention of Francis is to appoint the German bishop Heiner Wilmer as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

He is a person described by all as ultra-progressive and aligned with the most extreme decisions of the German Synodal Path. “For him, for example, the Holy Mass is not an important element of Christian life, and he proposes a complete revision of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. It is said that he has not yet been named due to the strong opposition Francis has encountered from numerous bishops and cardinals, such as Cardinal Müller.”

“But if he insists on the appointment, which is quite likely given the circumstances, there is no doubt that the Church will enter into a very deep struggle and division, and no one knows how it will end.”

4. The Question of the Traditional Mass

A statement by Msgr. Georg Gänswein, private secretary to Benedict XVI, shows that relations between Pope Francis and his predecessor have not always been as fraternal as official photographs have shown. Responding to questions from the Vaticanist Guido Horst of Die Tagespost, on January 20, the German prelate spoke about the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which practically annulled Summorum Pontificum. He claimed: “It was very hard. I believe that reading the new motu proprio broke Pope Benedict's heart because his intention had been to help all those who had found their home in the traditional Mass, to find inner peace, liturgical peace, so that they would abandon the position of Archbishop Lefebvre.”

“Furthermore, if one thinks for how many centuries the traditional Mass has been a source of spiritual life and nourishment for so many people, including many saints, it is impossible to imagine that it is no longer accessible to any one.”

“And we must not forget that many young people who were born after Vatican II, and who do not really understand all the drama that surrounded the Council, even the new Mass, have also found a spiritual home, a spiritual treasure in the traditional Mass. To snatch this treasure from the faithful... I must say that it is something that I do not like.”

We are happy to learn that Benedict XVI and his secretary shared the same attachment to the spiritual treasure of the Tridentine Mass, but we are surprised to hear, from the mouth of Msgr. Gänswein, that this attachment was to be accompanied by a hope that Catholics “abandon the position of Archbishop Lefebvre.”

As the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X never claimed to have a personal doctrine, nor an original position, one wonders what exactly the German prelate’s statement means. A possible response is provided by Luisella Scrosatti in the January 5 La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana:

“Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had worked for a long time to allow those who were deeply attached to the ancient rite to be able to have their place in the Church, without being considered as a reserve of nostalgics, but understanding their love for this venerable rite of the Church.”

“During the episcopal ordinations without papal mandate by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Archbishop Antônio de Castro Mayer in 1988, it seemed that the only possibility to be able to continue to drink from this inexhaustible and sure spiritual source was to follow Archbishop Lefebvre in the creation of an entity canonically unrecognized by the Church, and to adhere to its position of substantial rejection of the documents of Vatican II, of the post-conciliar magisterium, and of the liturgical reform.”

The Italian journalist continues: “Ratzinger was at the forefront of creating a canonical structure so that entire communities and individual priests and faithful no longer face the incredible dilemma: either the ancient rite or ecclesial communion.”

“Thus was created the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei and the various priestly institutes and monastic and religious communities attached to it. It was an important first step, but it was clear that in this way there was no escape from the reality of the ‘protected zone’ and from the idea that the ancient rite was for the benefit of a few nostalgic, perhaps even a little fanatic, people. Summorum Pontificum was the great recognition that this rite fully belongs to the liturgical expression of the Church, in the Roman Rite.”

In response to the “dilemma” posed by Luisella Scrosatti, “either the ancient rite or ecclesial communion,” we will not mention expressions such as “reservation for nostalgics,” or “perhaps even a little fanatic,” we will simply quote a bishop who does not belong to the Society of Saint Pius X, but who sees today what Archbishop Lefebvre saw at the very beginning of the crisis.

In a video interview relayed by LifeSiteNews on September 13, 2022, Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan, said about the Society founded by Archbishop Lefebvre: “We have to be realistic. The situation of the Society of Saint Pius X is linked with the extraordinary crisis of the Church.”

“They [its priests] do nothing but what the Church always did until the Council: there are no new things, they simply continue to do what the saints themselves did, and I repeat: their situation is canonically irregular due to the great crisis which we are living in since the Council. We have to be very honest and see this.”

“Of course we have to pray for them to get the full canonical structure, and to help with that, but when there is an emergency in matters of faith, the canonical legal aspect is secondary. What comes first is the faith, the truth and the liturgy, and all this that the Church has always guarded, as was the case in the fourth century during the Arian crisis.”

“St. Athanasius was excommunicated,” he said, “’They [the Arians] have taken all the churches, but we have faith. They have the buildings, we have the faith.’ Maybe they [neo-Arians] have the canonical power and the structures, but so many bishops don't have the faith...or not the full faith.”

And he concludes: “We must therefore have a global vision, and pray that there will be [one day] a pope who recognizes and gives all the faculties to the Society of St. Pius X, and to the other communities which strive to keep the faith.”

On November 21, 1974, Archbishop Lefebvre made this declaration, which has become famous:

“That is why we hold fast to all that has been believed and practiced in the faith, morals, liturgy, teaching of the catechism, formation of the priest and institution of the Church, by the Church of all time; to all these things as codified in those books which saw day before the Modernist influence of the Council. This we shall do until such time that the true light of Tradition dissipates the darkness obscuring the sky of Eternal Rome.”

And he specifies: “By doing this, with the grace of God and the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that of St. Joseph, and St. Pius X, we are assured of remaining faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and to all the successors of Peter, and of being the fideles dispensatores mysteriorum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi in Spiritu Sancto. Amen.”

Nearly 50 years later, the validity of the principles enunciated by the founder of the Society is manifest to the bishops, priests, and faithful who did not know him, but who loyally recognize that these traditional principles shed light on the current situation and make it possible to work for the salvation of souls.