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ROME – Reporters who cover the Vatican on a regular basis will tell you they often feel they don’t have just one gig, but several.
Sometimes chasing Vatican news is akin to covering the UN in terms of high geopolitical drama. Other times it’s more like following the Royal Family, vis-à-vis personal rivalries and palace intrigue, and still other times you feel like you’re on the crime beat, following up on seamy accusations, investigations and trials.
Of late, however, Vatican reporting has taken on a whole new dimension as a sort of book-of-the-day club.
Since the death of Pope Benedict XVI on New Year’s Eve, enough new Vatican-themed books have either been released or announced to fill an entire shelf in the Apostolic Library. The output includes:
- Nient’altro che la verità (“Nothing But The Truth”), the tell-all memoir of Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the closest aide to the late Pope Benedict XVI. The preface was penned by veteran Italian journalist Saverio Gaeta.
- Dio è sempre nuovo (“God is Ever New”), a collection of spiritual writings by Benedict XVI packaged and released by the Vatican’s own publishing house with a fresh preface by Pope Francis.
- Che cos’è il Cristianesimo: Quasi un testmento spirituale (“What Christianity Is: Almost a Spiritual Testament), a collection of 16 essays written by Pope Benedict XVI which he had authorized to be published after his death. While many were already known, five are completely new.
- Ratzinger la scelta. Non sono scappato (“Ratzinger’s Choice: I Didn’t Run Away”), a book by Italian journalist Orazio La Rocca, who’s covered the Vatican for many years for La Repubblica, documenting the decade of Benedict’s retirement. Gänswein contributed the preface.
- In buona fede: La religione nel XXI secolo “In Good Faith: Religion in the 21st Century), a book-length interview with German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, often seen as an in-house critic of Pope Francis, conducted by Franca Giansoldati, the Vatican correspondent for the Roma-based daily Il Messaggero.
- La paura come dono (“Fear as a Gift”), also a book-length interview, this time with Pope Francis. The dialogue is conducted by Salvo Noé, a popular Italian psychologist and author, and covers a wide range of topics from homosexual persons to migrants and refugees.
(Among other things, the torrent is a reminder of why Italian still remains the mother tongue of Vaticanology, since all these titles have appeared first in Italian.)
Virtually all of these books have made waves, contributing to impressions of a mounting civil war in the church following the death of Benedict XVI.
Gänswein’s book, for example, confirmed his own resentment over being effectively dumped by Francis as Prefect of the Papal Household in 2020, as well as touching upon certain differences between Benedict and Francis, including the traditional Latin Mass and Francis’s 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, which opened a cautious door to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
The book reopened old wounds, including Benedict’s frustration over being enlisted to endorse a volume of Francis’s teaching that included an essay by an old German theological rival and critic of Benedict.
The Müller interview book has been seen in a similar light.
Among other things, the former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office accuses Francis of having a “magic circle” around him of theologically dubious advisors, of being inconsistent in his approach to sex abuse cases, and of being sometimes impulsive in his judgments. On that last point, Müller cites the case of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, claiming the pontiff cut Becciu loose on the basis of a lone magazine article.
The new collection of Benedict’s own writings contains a previously unpublished essay titled “Monotheism and Tolerance,” in which the late pontiff criticizes what he saw as the increasingly intolerant ethos of modern Western societies, which, he warns, are increasingly intolerant of Christianity.
What’s garnered more attention, however, are three other points.
One doesn’t come in the book itself, but in a letter to the Italian journalist to whom Benedict entrusted the text, Elio Guerriero. Explaining his instruction that the volume not be published until after his death, Benedict wrote, “The fury of circles hostile to me in Germany is so strong that the appearance of every word I say provokes a verbal assassination. I want to spare myself, and Christianity, from that.”
In the book, Benedict addresses the sexual abuse scandals, blaming in part a “collapse” in seminary formation, such as the existence of “gay clubs” among seminarians, including in the United States. He asserts that he’s aware of one bishop who allowed his seminarians to watch pornographic films – “presumably with the intention of rendering them capable of resisting behaviors contrary to the faith,” he adds, in an ironic aside.
Finally, Benedict complains that “in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books are considered unworthy for the priesthood. My books are concealed as dangerous literature, and, so to speak, are read only in hiding.”
Though Benedict blames none of this on Pope Francis, it’s nonetheless been enough for the right-wing Italian press to treat it like the Battle of the Bulge: “War of the Popes,” screamed the Sunday headline in Libero: “The posthumous accusations of Ratzinger at Bergoglio.”
In terms of Francis’s own new book, it’s garnered attention mostly for his language on gay persons – which, of course, has been styled as a strong contrast with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“God is a father who doesn’t renounce any of his children,” Francis says in the book. “The style of God is closeness, mercy and tenderness, not judgment and marginalization.”
God comes close to each of his children, to all and to each of them,” the pope says. “His heart is open to all and to everyone. God is father. Love doesn’t divide, it unites.”
On other fronts, Francis supports the use of psychologists in seminary formation as part of anti-abuse strategies, condemns “climbers” and worldliness among priests, and confesses that he too occasionally fears making mistakes. Yet in proper doses, he says, such fear is a good thing, because it forces one to think carefully … in that sense, he says, “fear is like a mother who gives you advice.”
Sorting through this avalanche of verbiage, two things seem most arresting.
First is how unsurprising most of it seems.
Benedict XVI disappointed by Francis’s repeal of his opening to the Latin Mass, or grumpy about hostility in his home country? Müller – who, after all, was fired by Francis – unhappy with the pope’s decision-making style? Francis reaching out to gays and open to psychology? Gänswein miffed he was canned?
This is all, frankly, “dog bites man” news, i.e., as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. In itself, it’s hardly evidence that Catholicism is on the brink of chaos. Clashes between popes, or between bishops and popes, or between their respective followings, are as old as the church itself.
Hence the other observation: How out of proportion much of the coverage and commentary on these volumes seems, relative to their actual content.
As long as we’re revisiting texts from Benedict XVI, here’s one that might be useful in the present context. It’s drawn from a session with the clergy of the Italian dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso in 2007.
“Catholicism, a little simplistically, always has been considered the religion of the great et et [‘both/and’] – not of great exclusions, but of syntheses,” Benedict said that day. “Catholic means precisely ‘synthesis.’ … I’d say that this belongs to a good and truly Catholic pastoral approach: To live in the et et. I’d simply commit myself to the great Catholic synthesis, for this et et … Let’s live catholicity joyously, in this sense.”
In that spirit, it’s instructive to quote the final lines of Benedict’s post-mortem volume.
“At the end of my reflections, I want to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to constantly display the light of God, which, even today, has not faded,” Benedict writes. “Thank you, Holy Father!”
Given that, it’s at least worth considering whether today’s bevy of books has to be seen as evidence of disarray – or whether, just possibly, they actually may provide raw material for a glorious, and classically Catholic, future synthesis.