ROME – An inexorable media dynamic occurs whenever a major public figure dies: During the gap between the death and the funeral, journalists scramble to fill column inches and airwaves with something – anything, really – to sustain interest in the story until there’s actual news to report.

In keeping with that rule, the last 48 hours have brought an avalanche of commentary, analysis and dissection of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. As time goes on, the focus appears to be shifting away from obituaries and legacy pieces to more speculative “what now?” sorts of analysis.

Much of that output has been thoughtful and constructive – Benedict XVI was an intellectual, after all, and I always thought he tended to inspire smarter-than-average journalism. Yet a few instances of what we’ve seen have been downright silly, at times almost self-parodying.

Herewith three such claims one can find currently making the rounds:

  • With the death of Benedict XVI, Catholic conservatives have lost their hero and now will be adrift.
  • Benedict’s death removes a brake on conservative criticism of Pope Francis, so the church’s internal conflicts will now become more bitter and intractable.
  • American Catholics may now go into schism, because they’re no longer inhibited by Benedict still being alive. (Believe it or not, this suggestion actually was floated Tuesday on the front page of Corriere della Sera, supposedly Italy’s most authoritative newspaper.)

All three claims, as stated, are utter nonsense. (In fact, the first assertion is in open contraction to the other two, but when has strict logic ever stopped us?)

Let’s take a look. First, conservatives are adrift? Please.

To begin with, while most conservative Catholics certainly admire and cherish Benedict XVI, he was never the primary point of reference for the most aggressive opposition to Pope Francis.

Do a textual study, and you’ll likely find that Athanasius, not Benedict, has been the most cited figure in anti-Francis rants over the past decade. (Athanasius was the fourth century church father who famously stood against the Arian heresy, even when popes seemed to acquiesce). Other key points of reference for this constituency include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Popes Pius IX and X, not to mention Pope John Paul II.

There was a vibrant conservative Catholic movement well before Pope Benedict came along, and there will be one after he’s gone.

Further, to the extent Benedict was a point of reference for anti-Francis forces, his death hardly diminishes his potency – indeed, given the Catholic emphasis on the communion of saints, it really doesn’t change much at all. As one senior Vatican official put it to me on Sunday night, the only thing different now is that instead of praying “for” Benedict, he’ll pray “to” Benedict.

Second, conservatives have been holding their fire because of Benedict, and now will truly cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war? Again, please.

I see no evidence whatsoever that Benedict being around for the past decade inhibited conservative and traditionalist criticism of Pope Francis. We’ve seen Francis labeled the “dictator pope,” we’ve seen posters around Rome mocking his commitment to mercy, we’ve seen books arguing his election was illegitimate, we’ve seen accusations he’s an avowed Communist, pantheist, and idolator, and we’ve even seen prelates and theologians openly accusing him of heresy, all of which while Benedict was still very much with us.

Ten minutes on Twitter at any point over the past decade would bring multiple instances of public utterances about a pope that would have triggered burning at the stake in centuries past.

Of course, such voices represent only a tiny minority in the broader galaxy of conservative Catholic sentiment. For such folks, however, it’s hard to imagine there’s something even more toxic they’ve been holding in abeyance.

As the movie “Life of Brian” memorably put it, “Worse? How could it get worse?”

Third, the US church now will go into schism? This time, puh-leeze!

To begin with, I would remind my non-American colleagues that the most acerbic critics of Pope Francis in the global episcopacy are not, and never have been, Americans.

Okay, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was for a time the papal ambassador in the US, but believe me, he’s every inch an Italian. Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of the Netherlands, to take another example, pulled out of the 2018 Synod on Youth in support of Viganò’s first round of anti-Francis accusations, and later termed Francis’s restrictions on the Latin Mass “dictatorial,” “unpastoral,” and “unmerciful.” Another Dutch prelate, Cardinal Wim Eijk, warned in 2018 that Pope Francis’s failure to rein in Germans who wanted to give Protestants communion under certain circumstances represented “a drift towards apostasy.”

Yes, Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of four cardinals who voiced doubts about Amoris Laetitia, is an American, but the other three included yet another Italian (Cardinal Carlo Caffarra) and two Germans (Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner.) Today still another German, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is prominent among Francis critics, as is Cardinal Robert Sarah of Ghana and Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has been acerbically critical of Francis’s China policy.

I could go on, but the point is clear: It’s hardly just American bishops who have their noses out of joint.

There isn’t a single American bishop prepared to become the Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the New World, meaning a prelate who’ll lead a chunk of priests and faithful in a formal break with Rome. Plenty of US shepherds may be a bit more conservative than Francis, but they think of themselves as a loyal opposition, not a fifth column.

The American church has deep pockets, a huge media megaphone and the world’s most polarized cultural environment. It’s always going to be fertile soil for the extremes in Catholicism in some measure, but it also has probably the biggest, broadest and most stable Catholic center in the world – visit a vibrant American parish on any given Sunday, and you’ll find scores of people indifferent to church politics but deeply attached to the faith.

If there’s to be a schism, in other words, it’s highly unlikely to be Made in the USA.

It would be great if the current cycle of meditations on the life and legacy of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI could continue, free of these pernicious bits of papal poppycock. I’m under no illusions, however – in the media universe as in the physical world, alas, time and the tides wait for no one.