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ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pope Francis has accused critics of “instrumentalizing” the recent death of Pope Benedict XVI, saying the sort of divisions exposed in the wake of the late pontiff’s passing have more to do with ideology than faith.
Speaking to journalists Sunday on board his Feb. 5 ITA Airways flight from Juba to Rome, the pope said rumors that Benedict was upset about some of his decisions were false, and that when he consulted with Benedict on a few things, Benedict “agreed.”
Francis did not say what decisions he sought Benedict’s advice on, but said he believed “Benedict’s death was instrumentalized.”
Benedict XVI reigned as pope from 2005 until he made history in 2013 by becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign the papacy. He spent the last 10 years of his life in retirement, living at the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, having been retired longer than he held office as pope.
He died Dec. 31 at the age of 95, and within days of the announcement, a slew of articles and books were published that appeared to pit Benedict XVI and Francis against one another, as had been the case throughout Benedict’s decade of retirement.
Among the publications released were an autobiographical book by Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, in which Gänswein said Benedict was pained by Pope Francis’s decision in 2021 to restrict access to the Traditional Latin Mass, as well as Francis’s 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, which opened a cautious door to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Gänswein also said Pope Francis had consulted Benedict XVI on several issues, but ceased seeking his advice after Benedict urged his successor to offer “strong and public resistance” against “gender philosophy.”
In an interview book with Italian journalist Franca Giansoldati which appeared shortly after Benedict’s death, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office and a close friend of Benedict XVI, leveled his own charges at Francis.
Among other things, Müller accused 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.
Without naming anyone specifically, Francis appeared to address such critiques in his comments Sunday.
When Benedict died, “People wanted to score points for their own side,” Francis said, saying, “the people who instrumentalize such a good person, so close to God…a person who did so much, those people don’t have ethics, they are people who belong to a party, not to the church.”
“On every side you see the tendency to make parties with theological positions, and then to bring them forward,” he said, saying he prefers to let these things be, because they “will go away on their own.”
Francis said Benedict was someone with whom “I could speak about everything” and easily exchange opinions.
“He was always at my side, supporting, and if there was some difficultly, he told me, and we spoke. There were no problems,” the pope said. Francis said that at one point, someone who, he said, thought of himself as a “great theologian” made a complaint about Francis’s support for inheritance rights in civil unions.
In response, Francis said Benedict called four “top-level” cardinal theologians to study the issue, “and the story ends there,” with them finding no problem with that stance.
Francis said he recounted the story because “I wanted to say clearly who Pope Benedict was,” and insisted Benedict was not “embittered” in his retirement, as many have portrayed.
Pope Francis spoke at the conclusion of his Jan. 31-Feb. 5 visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, which he made in a bid to comfort and encourage the people of the two war-torn nations.
He was joined in South Sudan by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, both of whom joined the pope on his return flight and participated in his in-flight press conference.
In addition to the drama surrounding the death of Benedict XVI, other topics discussed included the ongoing war in Ukraine, the criminalization of homosexuality in several countries, and potential future papal trips.
On the Ukraine war, Pope Francis said he is willing to meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and said that he wants to visit both countries.
“If I didn’t go to Kyiv, it’s because it was not possible at that moment to go to Moscow,” he said, saying he is looking for “a small window to negotiate.”
He also called attention to other global conflicts, such as ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar, saying the Ukraine conflict “is not the only war.”
“There are wars that are more important because of the noise they make, but the world is at war, it’s self-destructing,” he said, saying, “We must think about this seriously, it’s self-destructing.”
Weighing in, Welby said “an end to this war is within the hands of President Putin. He could end it with withdrawal and ceasefire and then negotiations about long-term settlement” if he chooses, but has not made that decision yet.
Both Welby and Pope Francis praised the role of women in promoting peace, with the pope praising the many women he encountered in both the DRC and South Sudan who have suffered so much as a result of war but have not lost their faith.
The strength of women is something “we must take it seriously,” he said, but “not just to make publicity for oneself, this is an insult to women. Women are intended for greater things.”
He also condemned the global arms trade, saying it perpetuates conflict and drags wars out, leading to further destruction.
“I think that today, in the world, this is the greatest plague, the sale of weapons. Someone told me, if they didn’t sell weapons for a year, fighting in the world would end. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but today at the top is the sale of weapons,” he said.
The proliferation of arms also fuels tribalism, he said, saying, “that violence between tribes is caused by the sale of weapons, and then, they exploit the land and that causes conflict in the tribes.”
“This is diabolic, there is no other word. It destroys, destroys creation, destroys the person, it destroys society,” he said, and also condemned the phenomenon, in many places, including the DRC, of child soldiers.
On the issue of homosexuality, the pope, Welby, and Greenshields all stressed the need to be welcoming to those with homosexual orientation, and condemned the ongoing criminalization of homosexuality in many countries.
The Catholic Church is the only one among the three churches represented at the press conference that does not allow same sex marriage in some way, and the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has also recently rejected offering blessings to same-sex couples.
In his remarks, the pope condemned parents who kick their children out of the house for being homosexual, saying, “they have a right to stay at home, children who have this orientation, you can’t kick them out of the house, they have a right to this.”
He said there are a swath of countries that maintain laws criminalizing homosexuality, and several that go so far as to punish it with the death penalty, “either openly or behind the scenes.”
“To condemn a person like that is a sin. To criminalize people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice,” he said, saying lobbies “are another thing,” whereas homosexual individuals “are people.”
Welby echoed the pope’s remarks, saying the issue has been a major discussion within the Church of England, and within British Parliament. The Church of England, he said, has recently passed two resolutions on the criminalization of homosexuality.
Although this “has not really changed many peoples’ minds,” Welby said the issue will be the main topic of discussion at the Church of England’s upcoming general synod, during which Welby said he will “certainly quote the Holy Father,” who he said summed up the way they feel “beautifully and accurately.”
Pope Francis also spoke about upcoming travel plans and his own health, saying he is planning a trip to India in 2024, and that this year, in addition to a trip to Lisbon for World Youth Day the first week of August, he has a trip to Marseille scheduled for Sept. 23.
It is possible, he said, that he will fly to Mongolia directly from Marseille, but he insisted that those plans are not yet final. Pope Francis elevated Mongolia’s first-ever cardinal, Giorgio Maregno, during his consistory last August.
In general, Francis said he prefers to visit “the smallest countries in Europe…to get know a bit the ‘hidden Europe,’ the Europe that that has a lot of culture that is unknown. This is my choice, to try not to fall into the globalization of indifference.”
In terms of his health, the pope admitted that “it’s not like the beginning of the pontificate, that’s true,” and that his knee continues to give him problems, “but it is coming along slowly.”