Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, and the Best Pope Forever

Leo Angelo de Castro from Vatican, Vatican, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The highly acclaimed 2019 movie The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, contrasted the personalities, styles, and priorities of the two most recent Catholic pontiffs. These differences are more than Hollywood screenplays. They have appeared in the unfolding drama of Catholicism starting with the election of Francis in 2013 and continuing after the death of Benedict on the last day of 2022.

Often interpreted as differences between a conservative and a progressive, these nebulous labels conceal similarities, intensify differences, and exacerbate hard feelings between polarized groups within the Catholic Church.

Both popes have recognized colossal ecclesiastical and global problems, but Benedict and Francis undoubtedly diverged on their outlook concerning the Church and world. Benedict worried about the future and sought to shore up centuries of philosophy, theology, and tradition that he believed were fading. Francis discerns the pressing issues that face the Church and world by involving people affected by them to find solutions that may not have been formerly imagined.

The differences between the two popes show up in their public personas and papal agendas. Benedict famously worked with ideas — what he and many people call “theology.” Francis emphasizes engaging people; this is often called “pastoral.” In Catholic circles, the pastoral is relegated to “a branch of practical theology; it is essentially a practical science. All branches of theology, whether theoretical or practical, purpose in one way or another to make priests ‘the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God’ (1 Corinthians 4:1). Pastoral theology presupposes other various branches.” Detractors of the Second Vatican Council dismiss it as being “merely pastoral” and subsequently not binding.

The two approaches find unlikely expression in the Renaissance painting The School of Athens. Commissioned by Julius II, “the warrior pope,” Raphael’s famous fresco adorns a wall in the Vatican Palace. Benedict’s theology (like Plato) points to the heavens, while the pastoral approach of Francis follows Aristotle and gestures toward the earth.

Two Different Men

Benedict was known to be a quiet and shy man who appeared to feel more at home with books and ideas than with people. Early on, Joseph Ratzinger developed a reputation as an influential theologian. He became a professor of theology in the 1950s and participated in the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert. Later, Ratzinger served as a bishop and authored influential theological articles and books, including the Jesus of Nazareth series. Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Catholic Church’s office that defines theological doctrines and enforces orthodoxy. He held this position for 24 years and shaped the theological policies of Catholicism for a generation. In 2005, the German cardinal was elected pope. As pontiff, Benedict set the theological agenda of the Church through famous documents such as his Regensburg address, the papal encyclical Caritats in Veritate, and his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Beyond his popular image of a stereotypically joyless German, the Anthony Hopkins character portrayed Benedict as a musician with a deep love of classical music.

The Two Popes dramatically depicts the development of Pope Francis. As a young Jesuit, Fr. Bergoglio ruled the Jesuit province under his care with an iron fist. After alienating those under his charge, he was banished to a lonely outpost. There he immersed himself in the writings of the Church fathers as he also learned to serve the people in his care. Brought back to Buenos Aires, Bergoglio became archbishop and eventually cardinal. Although known to have a dour personality, Cardinal Bergoglio chose to forego many of the trappings of his position. He became popular for taking public transportation and celebrating Mass in the streets of the poorest communities. Upon becoming pope, Francis stood on the papal balcony, waved to the Roman crowd, and greeted them in Italian, “Buona sera.” He admitted that he underwent a deeper conversion after becoming pope, and his temperament changed. “[T]hings that were dormant in my personality came to the surface; that I became more merciful.”

A crucial theme for Francis’ papacy is accompaniment. The pope wants those with power, privilege, and place to accompany people on the margins. Pope Francis has modeled accompaniment; he flourishes with the multitudes, travels to unlikely places, goes out of his way to greet disabled people, and even welcomes children on his stage while speaking to audiences. Francis has established innovative ministries to unhoused people in Rome, and he has visited refugee camps in Lampedusa and Lesbos. Many his official documents — like Fratelli Tutti, Amoris Laetitia, Antiquum, Ministerium, Traditiones Custodes — have accompaniment as their theme. He describes the impulse of accompaniment in the final paragraph of his 2022 apostolic letter Desederio Desideravi, “Let us abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.” The Synod on Synodality may be his most significant act of accompaniment by gathering the global Church to express their hopes and concerns in anew model of Church governance.

The Paradox of Benedict’s Funeral

These two contrasting approaches of “theological” and “pastoral” showed themselves in the events surrounding Benedict’s death. Reportedly, Benedict’s team led by Archbishop Georg Gänswein (who loves the Pope Emeritus like a son) was upset at what they considered a slight in the way Pope Francis handled the days following Benedict’s passing.

Although thousands of people paid their respects as Benedict’s body lay in state for three days at St. Peter’s Basilica, there were no official visits. Nor were there public prayer vigils at the Vatican. Instead of declaring an official time of mourning, Pope Francis forged ahead with his daily schedule. There was no time off for Vatican officials, the Vatican flags did not fly at half mast, and Francis did not attend the committal of Benedict’s body. Journalist Robert Mickens noted, “There are many of us who were never particularly enamored of Joseph Ratzinger. But the man was the Bishop of Rome for nearly eight years. And for that alone, he deserved better than this.”

However, renowned Francis critic George Weigel found no problem with muted fanfare. “I was not offended by the brevity of his remarks, which were thoroughly biblical and Christocentric — quite appropriate for the funeral Mass of the Christ-centered Benedict XVI. Francis’s extensive quotation from the Pastoral Rule of Pope St. Gregory the Great neatly linked Benedict XVI to his peer — perhaps his only peer — as a papal preacher. The last words of the homily — “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be perfect in hearing His voice definitively and forever!” — could not have been improved upon.”

Benedict wanted his funeral to be “simple, solemn, and sober.” Francis seemed to follow Benedict’s wishes, but emotions are powerful in the aftermath of the death of a beloved and powerful person.

The hurt feelings are certainly the result of years of rivalry, and the infighting seems like a social media duel. Are you #TeamBenedict or #TeamFrancis? Benedict’s faction has felt insulted that Francis, in their view, has tried to undo much of Benedict’s pontificate — the most meaningful was Francis repeal of Summorum Pontificum, Benedict’s motu proprio permitting the celebration of the old Latin Mass. Francis also fired many of Benedict’s appointees and marginalized high-ranking officials who did not share Francis’ pastoral vision and agenda.

Paradoxically, in wanting Francis to pay more honor to Benedict in his passing and more care to them in their mourning, Benedict’s loyal supporters expected Pope Francis to be more pastoral. They wanted him to accompany them through their grief, walk with them and the Church more closely in the days preceding the funeral, and emphasize the person and legacy of the late pontiff.

Benedict’s team demonstrated what Francis has been teaching. As important as theology is in the life of the Church, it is ultimately of only of penultimate significance to the pastoral because all theology arises through the interaction of human persons.

Your Best Pope Forever

Pope Francis stated one of his guiding principle in his initial apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel: Realities are greater than ideas. Paragraph 231 explains Francis’ discernment. “There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric.”

Francis is not opposed to theology or philosophy, but he wants to ensure their place in service of people. “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason” (paragraph 232). Theology serves people; people do not serve theology.

In his emphasis of the pastoral over the theological, Francis has embodied theology in the sense of what the Eastern Churches mean by the word theologian: someone who sees and encounters God. Because the title is so important, the Eastern Christianity applies it to only three saints: John the Apostle, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Symeon the New Theologian.

Francis is not the academic theologian that Pope Benedict was, but his Petrine ministry, official documents, and personal conversion demonstrate he is a true theologian. As a pastor in the mode of the Good Shepherd, Francis encounters God in the life of the faithful who constitute the Body of Christ. He wants the Church to become filled with true theologians by finding and serving Christ in people on the margins.

Following his resurrection, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Popes are ultimately shepherds, not university professors, who must, as Pope Francis affirms, “smell like sheep.”

Of course, theological teaching is essential in the life of the church. The theological and pastoral are not in opposition to one another. The work of the pastor necessarily involves teaching of theology, but living theology arises from engagement with people and operates in their service.

The Manichaean practice of dividing popes into camps of good or bad based on personal or political preference does little to serve people, and it only exacerbates ideological rifts that threaten to tear the Catholic Church asunder.

No pope is completely good or bad, happy or grumpy, outgoing or withdrawn. Benedict was known by many close friends to be warm and joyful, and Francis often shows signs of sullen irritability. He once swiped of the hand of a woman who had grabbed him from the admiring throngs.

Everyone has their BPF, their Best Pope Forever. Nevertheless, Benedict and Francis each have ministered as the visible head of the Catholic Church in their unique God-designed ways. Any Catholic who refutes or resists that reality opposes both the theological and pastoral work of the Holy Spirit. Using the papacy to advance a personal or political agenda profanes the holy purpose of what the Church is supposed to be about.

Apostolic Appeal

Some popes have performed better than others, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have a personal affinity for one pope above another. Perhaps, Catholics would do well to reflect on the teaching of an apostle of Rome who never became pope. In 1Corinthians 1:10–17.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Were you baptized in the name of Benedict? Was Francis crucified for you? Of course not, and the two popes would agree on this. As long as there the Catholic Church exists, there will be new popes to become someone’s BPF.

Even the apostles argued over who among them was the greatest in God’s kingdom. Jesus disabused them of their ambitions by setting a child in their midst. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4)

Using the Gospel as a means of gaining power, violates the teaching of Christ who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).

Instead of seeking to control the papacy or shaping the legacy of a favorite pope, Catholics should follow the model of Christ. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3–5).

May the current divisions and bickering end and may the Catholic Church be of one mind, namely the mind of Christ.



Disability, Catholic, Education, Scripture, Spirit, Life

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