Mythology and media narratives to the contrary, Pope Francis has far more in common with Pope Benedict XVI than whatever separates them. Francis probably could be better understood as “Benedict 2.0,” supplying a warmer and more populist package for the same basic positions espoused by his more cerebral predecessor.

The release on Thursday of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si, may well be the latest proof of the point.

First of all, it’s hardly as if embracing the cause of fighting climate change, saving the rainforests, and otherwise protecting the environment is somehow a break with Benedict. On the contrary, Benedict was famously the pope who installed solar panels atop a Vatican audience hall and signed an agreement to make the Vatican Europe’s first carbon-neutral state in order to back up his strong ecological concerns.

In a speech to the German parliament in 2011 – a speech, by the way, that probably meant more to the German pontiff than most he delivered during his eight-year reign – Benedict said the rise of Germany’s Green movement in the 1970s was “a cry for fresh air, a cry that cannot be ignored or put aside.”

Yet Benedict also tried to paint a distinctly Catholic shade of green in the way he approached environmental questions, and Francis recently provided a hint he’s thinking the same way.

In brief comments to reporters aboard the papal plane returning from last Saturday’s trip to Bosnia, Francis said his forthcoming environmental encyclical will deal, among other topics, with relativism, which he described as a “cancer of society.” (In the same breath, Francis also called consumerism a “cancer.”)

Relativism is a philosophical position that holds there are no absolute moral rules, because everything is relative to particular circumstances and individuals. At the popular level, it refers to an “anything goes” morality opposed to traditional Catholic teaching.

It might seem odd for Francis to use an environmental tract to bring up a debate over moral philosophy, but that’s where understanding the mind of Benedict XVI helps.

For Benedict, secular environmentalism is the most promising route for recovery of a strong sense of “natural law,” meaning the idea that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are real qualities which exist in nature, and which human beings can discover using their reason and conscience.

Many Catholic thinkers, prominently including Benedict XVI, worry that natural law has been supplanted in the popular mind either by relativism or by positivism, the idea that moral rules are imposed by human authority and thus more akin to the speed limit than to gravity – something invented, instead of being given in nature.

Benedict believes that environmentalism is leading people back to the idea of natural law, because it proves that limits on what human beings can do without paying a price aren’t just arbitrary but absolutely, objectively real.

“Everyone can see today that … we can’t simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us, we have to respect the inner laws of creation, of this earth, if we want to survive,” Benedict said in 2007.

From there, Benedict said, we may learn to listen to human nature as well, discovering moral laws that stand above our own ego. Benedict called all this a “secular path” to the formation of conscience.

His comments on relativism last Saturday indicate Francis is likely to make a similar point, treating environmentalism not just as an important social cause, but also a moral teaching moment.

One could go on cataloguing the links between Francis and Benedict. This week, for instance, Francis devoted one of his morning homilies to insisting that Christians must not “weaken or water down” their identity, warning against the influence of “modern Gnostics” and an “insipid religion of just prayers and ideas.”

Through the history of salvation, Francis said, God has led the Church progressively from “ambiguities” to “certainties.” Close your eyes, and you easily could have believed you were hearing Benedict XVI.

In most of the ways that matter, what’s changed from Benedict to Francis isn’t the lyrics, but the music. Instead of Wagner, people today seem to hear a saucy Latin rhythm when the pope speaks, often making the message easier to take.

Last week, for example, Francis met the bishops of Puerto Rico in the Vatican, presenting them with a speech blasting gay marriage and “gender theory” in exactly the same terms Benedict XVI would have used. Francis did it, however, while inviting the bishops to join him for lunch, joking that “a little wine will loosen the tongue and you can tell me the truth.”

The real difference between the two pontiffs may lie in reach and effectiveness, not content. Francis has succeeded in convincing a wide swath of people, especially those outside the Church, that he values their experiences and cares about their perspectives. That impression makes them more inclined to view his take on things with sympathy rather than skepticism.

Warmth, in other words, isn’t just about packaging and tone. It also translates into power, meaning the ability to shape opinion and to win hearts and minds where others have failed.

Laudato Si seems destined to be the latest chapter in this bond between Benedict and Francis, with the key question being whether Francis’ more enchanting presentation once again allows his “2.0” version of the message to pack a greater punch.

Overlooked points on the Vatican tribunal for sex abuse cases

On Wednesday, Pope Francis approved the creation of a new judicial section inside a Vatican tribunal, meaning a church court, to hold bishops accountable who fail to respond appropriately to accusations of sexual abuse of minors lodged against personnel under their authority.

The Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has played the lead role in the response to abuse scandals since the late John Paul II years, already contains a tribunal. The pope’s decision gives it a new judicial section with responsibility for “abuse of office” cases against bishops involving failure to handle abuse allegations according to the Church’s new “zero tolerance” standard.

The mission, in other words, is to ensure accountability not for the crime, but for the cover-up.

I published an analysis for Crux; here I’ll address two points that seemed a bit overlooked in the initial discussion.

This is not an end-run around law enforcement
Some victims’ advocacy groups voiced skepticism in response to the announcement, insisting that if a bishop covers up child sexual abuse, he should be held accountable not by fellow hierarchs, but by secular law enforcement.

The reaction is certainly understandable, but it’s based on a misunderstanding of the tribunal’s role. It’s not intended to supplant police and prosecutors in pursuing charges against a bishop, should his failure to act constitute a crime under the law of the state in which he lives. Instead, it’s designed to pursue internal ecclesiastical discipline.

By way of background, when a Catholic cleric is accused of a crime, he’s subject to at least three possible procedures:

  • A criminal prosecution by the secular justice system, which could lead to jail time or other punishment.
  • A civil trial in a secular court, which could lead to financial compensation for victims.
  • A Church investigation, which could lead to being removed from ministry, expelled from the clerical state, or other ecclesiastical sanctions.

The tribunal deals with the third level of accountability, and does not affect the other two.

Granted, the Vatican could have done a better job of explaining this point in the way they presented the announcement. However, the bottom line is that if a bishop breaks the criminal law of the state, this tribunal will not get him off the hook.

(As a footnote, the Vatican has been dealing with fallout from the abuse scandals for the better part of two decades. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why everything they say on the subject doesn’t come with a boilerplate clause along the lines of, “The Holy See is fully committed to cooperation with civil law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of possible crimes.”)

In part, a mechanism for internal discipline is needed to avoid the paradoxical situation created in Kansas City-St. Joseph, where former Bishop Robert Finn was convicted in a secular court of a misdemeanor charge of delaying to report an abuse allegation, but continued to serve as the diocesan leader for another two and a half years.

The need for such a system also reflects the fact that the Church’s expectations of its leaders are – or, at least, certainly should be – higher than merely not having committed a crime. It may be that a particular failure to act doesn’t constitute a crime under civil law, but is still grounds for an internal disciplinary process.

What we don’t yet know
It’s important to distinguish between actually imposing accountability, and simply creating an instrument for doing so. It remains to be seen whether the tribunal will deliver on its promise, and in that regard there are at least four key questions that still have to be answered.

1. Who will staff the new section?
The Vatican announcement said that a secretary will be appointed to run it, but didn’t indicate who that person will be, what the requirements for the job will be, or how many other staff will be brought on board.

If someone with reform credentials isn’t tapped for the secretary’s role, it will raise immediate questions about how credible the tribunal really is.

Locating the new operation at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gives it political heft, but it also may prompt doubts about whether its resources will be adequate. For years bishops around the world have complained of a “backlog” at the congregation of cases in which abusers are being expelled from the priesthood, because there weren’t enough qualified Church lawyers to process them efficiently.

If the tribunal is to meet expectations, it will need the personnel and resources to do the job. Along those lines, it will be interesting to see whether lay people with the proper training and experience as Church lawyers are invited to join the staff, especially those already familiar with the dynamics of abuse cases.

2. When will the new section be up and running?
On background, officials have said the idea is to recruit a staff over the summer and be ready to go by the fall, but it’s not clear if that ambitious timeline (at least by Vatican standards) will be realized.

When the Vatican announced the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in December 2013, it was billed as a top papal priority. It took several months, however, just to locate physical office space inside the Vatican for the commission, and longer still to obtain approval for the appointment of new members.

If a year from now people find themselves wondering whatever became of the tribunal, the impression of delay likely won’t inspire confidence.

3. How will cases actually reach the tribunal?
As the system has been explained, if a bishop is accused of dropping the ball on an abuse charge, the complaint would first go to the relevant Vatican department with jurisdiction over that bishop – the Congregation for Bishops in most parts of the world, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in so-called “mission territories,” and the Congregation for Eastern Churches for prelates of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome.

The idea is that if those offices judge the complaint to be serious enough, they would refer it to the tribunal for further investigation and possible prosecution. It remains to be seen, however, how willing those congregations will be to make referrals.

In part, officials may be hesitant to pull the trigger out of sympathy for fellow members of the hierarchy, a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” restraint. In part, too, Vatican departments are notoriously protective of their turf, and officials may resent turning over what they see as their own authority to somebody else.

If the system is to work, there may need to be ways of working around those natural potential bottlenecks.

4. What exactly will the tribunal’s mandate be?
Will it be empowered to prosecute cases of alleged failure to act that stretch back in time, such as complaints lodged against Boston’s former Cardinal Bernard Law, or will a “statute of limitations” limit its purview to more recent cases?

Presumably that decision will be made within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, subject to the pope’s ultimate approval. At the moment, however, it’s among the unknowns.

Until these questions are resolved, many observers may be inclined to withhold judgment about exactly how much of a breakthrough the revamped tribunal represents.