For the past week the world of the Vatican II Church, and especially that corner of it occupied by Ratzinger/Benedict cultists, has been consumed with the Ratzinger letter fiasco. Let's get the obvious out of the way right up front: the affair was a tawdry attempt by Bergoglio to trade on the continued popularity of Ratzinger among "conservative" Vatican II adherents, who place their hopes for the Church on Ratzinger's "hermeneutic of continuity." The clear intent was to influence those who invoke Ratzinger to justify their opposition to Bergoglio to drop their opposition. The Bergoglian scheme backfired in spectacular fashion amid an explosion of conspiratorial speculation, most of it suggesting that by use of secret decoder rings or other devices the letter can be seen to diss Francis' thought and his policy. (For thorough coverage of the controversy, a good source is Sandro Magister's blog.)
There is both more and less than meets the eye in most of this speculation. The implicit assumption behind most of it is that Ratzinger engaged in some sort of preturnaturally clever passive-aggressive ploy against Bergoglio and his communications team. The truth is that Ratzinger's letter is clearly carefully written, carefully worded, and therefore should be taken at face value. It is polite and fair as well as honest throughout. The reason this assessment is so widely resisted is obvious: those who blame all the Church's troubles on Bergoglio will resort to virtually any rationalization to avoid accepting that Ratzinger really is in fundamental "philosophical and theological" agreement with Bergoglio--that the two pontificates share an "inner continuity"--as the letter affirms. To admit this continuity would be to expose the whole Ratzinger-as-bulwark-of-orthodoxy construct as a baseless fantasy. And yet, when this continuity is accepted, the observer is free to consider the rest of the letter with an open mind, and the benefit of doing so is that the letter also gives a clear hint in the direction of the discontinuity that actually does exist between the two pontificates. This understanding will open broad vistas on the mortal danger facing the Church.
Let's start at the beginning with the aspects of the letter that the Bergoglian faction presented to the world as confirmation that Bergoglio's thought is highly esteemed by the Great Ratzinger. The simple truth is that Ratzinger fairly and honestly affirmed the basic "philosophical and theological" continuity of the two pontificates. Recall, that Ratzinger's letter was a response to the gift of "eleven small volumes," studies of Bergoglio's thought, that had been presented to Ratzinger by Dario Edoardo Viganò, the Prefect of the Secretariat of Communications at the Vatican. Viganò had apparently hoped to induce Ratzinger to write a positive review of the "eleven small volumes." Instead, Ratzinger declined to do so, politely but firmly. He did, however, offer some positive remarks. Ratzinger begins his letter as follows:
"I applaud this initiative which is intended to oppose and react to the stupid/foolish [It. stolto] prejudice according to which Pope Francis is a man who is only concerned with practical matters and lacks any particular theological or philosophical formation, while I am solely a theoretician of theology with little capacity to understand the concrete life of a Christian today."
"I applaud this initiative" - Why not? Who would doubt that Ratzinger the academician would applaud a genuine effort to understand and explain the thinking of the current pope--or, one of the current popes, depending on your point of view? There is no reason to doubt the genuineness of this general sentiment.
"the stupid/foolish prejudice" - Initially, the Ratzinger/Benedict cultists seized on the seeming harshness of this expression to argue that the letter was a fraud, a fake. In fact, however, Ratzinger's longtime private secretary, Georg Gaenswein, has, as recently as July 17, 2017, used equally harsh language, referring to those who seek to find or create distance between the two popes as "stupid people." It would seem that Ratzinger's use of this language reflects a concern to be both fair and honest--fair to Bergoglio and honest regarding his cultist followers.
"The little volumes demonstrate, rightly so, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help in seeing the interior continuity between the two pontificates, albeit with all the differences of style and temperament."
"The little volumes demonstrate" - While this is certainly not an affirmation that Ratzinger has "truly read" the "little volumes" ("truly read" is an expression Ratzinger uses toward the end of the letter), I think we can take it that this is an indication that he has at least glanced through them to get a sense of their general thrust--as we will see, he definitely took note of the authorship of each volume. This would be counter to the widely asserted notion that Ratzinger refused to even glance at them, out of contempt for Bergoglio.
"Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation" - For many the use of the word "profound" is absurdly hyperbolic, but it's important to bear in mind that the word is quite relative. Compared to the dew, a puddle could be regarded as "profound" or "deep." In addition, we have to consider just what sort of philosophical and theological formation Bergoglio received. Anyone who has read Bergoglio's extremely modest literary output prior to becoming pope will be struck by the "conventional Ratzingerian" nature of his thought. Which is to say, his thinking can be characterized as informed by the "Spirit" of Vatican II, as embodied in Dei Verbum, Gaudium et Spes, Lumen Gentium, and Dignitatis Humanae. And in my opinion no one person is better qualified to judge whether someone has an understanding of that spirit than Joseph Ratzinger.
A reflection on Bergoglio's remarks since becoming pope reveals, in my opinion, that his understanding of the "philosophical and theological" principles behind this "Spirit" of Vatican II is certainly far more than merely basic. It has also become clear, however, that his true sympathies as regards interpretation of Vatican II lie with what we might call the "Left Progressives", the Concilium wing, men such as Rahner and Kasper, as opposed to the "Right Progressives", the Communio wing-- Ratzinger, De Lubac, von Balthasar, etc. For our purposes, the main difference is the importance the Right Progressives place on continuity, the famous "hermeneutic of continuity," whereas the Left Progressives are willing to risk a rupture to get their way. Bergoglio himself has famously joked that he might provoke a schism--a rupture he is clearly willing to risk, although he apparently believes that his "hermeneutic of pastorality" can forge a new synthesis. So, in making his assessment, I think we can say that Ratzinger--who is undoubtedly aware of these differences--is determined to be fair and honest. He recognizes that Bergoglio has an excellent understanding of the common philosophical and theological principles of the two progressive schools of thought.
"they [the little volumes] help to show the inner continuity between the two pontificates" - Again we see that Ratzinger is being scrupulously fair and honest. While recognizing the differences, we should not allow those difference to obscure the essential kinship of the two schools of progressivism, their "inner continuity." That continuity is real and substantive. Nor should anyone suppose that Ratzinger would be so petty (from his standpoint) as to dismiss the Left Progressives as inconsequential thinkers. Many of them continued to be friends and colleagues of Ratzinger, who advanced their careers despite their disagreements. Ratzinger, it appears, is willing to put these differences down to "differences of style and temperament," lamentable as they might be, but not true differences of philosophical and theological principle.
Having provided this endorsement of Bergoglio's qualifications, however, Ratzinger declines in set terms to "write a brief and dense theological page about them". That, he says, would be against his long held determination that he would never express an opinion on books unless he had "truly read" them. He has not "truly read" the "eleven little volumes" and will not be doing so "in the near future" "if only for physical reasons." This is the paragraph that was deliberately obscured by the Vatican. As I have argued, above, I don't think this means that Ratzinger is completely unaware of the contents of the "little volumes". I believe his statement that they demonstrate the continuity of thought between the two pontificates is sincere. But there was another paragraph that was not only obscured but was actually deleted from the "complete text" of the letter that the Vatican released, and this is where matters become more interesting, in my view.
In that deleted paragraph, now made public, Ratzinger raises another matter. While he doesn't expressly state that this matter is part of his reason for declining to write the requested review--in fact, he expressly states that he raises this matter "solo a margine," "as a side note"--we may suppose that it may have been a factor. Here's what it is. Ratzinger writes:
"I would like to mention my surprise that among the authors [of the "eleven little volumes"] was Professor Hünermann, who during my pontificate put himself in the spotlight by heading anti-papal initiatives. He ... virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the pope especially on questions of moral theology."
Again, I don't believe Ratzinger raises this issue as a petty personal matter, a matter of wounded pride. There are, I strongly suspect, two issues at play here, one of which goes to the matter of "style and temperament" and the other to an issue that at least approaches that of a principle.
Why should Ratzinger be so troubled by the inclusion of Hünerman as an author of this series of studies of Bergoglio's thought? Because Hünerman is an implacable critic of the papacy. Recall the importance that Ratzinger places on "continuity." And what office in the Church is the very organ of continuity, of unity? The papacy. That a pope--not just Bergoglio, but any pope--should avail himself of such an implacable critic of the papal magisterium, which is to say, of the very authority of the papacy, to sing his praises goes against everything that Ratzinger stands for. In fact, I believe that Ratzinger sees this as smacking of opportunism--a matter of "style and temperament" that is part of what I believe Ratzinger has come to detest in Bergoglio.
There is another aspect to this issue that I believe Ratzinger also has in mind, and that is the overall Bergoglian strategy or plan for the Church.
Everyone is aware that the "pastoral" gambit to gut morality of any objective standards, as articulated in Amoris Laetitia (The Loves of Letitia), is the brainchild of Walter Kasper. Kasper has many brainchildren, and another one of those children that Bergoglio has expressed approval for is that of a synodal Church, along the lines of Orthodoxy. What this means in practice is a communion of "national" churches--possibly to include Protestant "denominations"--each having authority even over moral and doctrinal matters. Yes, really.
At first glance, this may seem paradoxical--that an imperious man such as Bergoglio, known even as The Dictator Pope, should be a proponent of a decentralized Church. Would that not diminish his own office? And what of his own unrelenting efforts to force his will on the rest of the Church? There is, I think, a method to the seeming madness. Bergoglio, we have been told by those closest to him, is determined that his remaking of the Church in his own image and likeness shall be irreversible. What is the one way sure to accomplish that? By inducing each national bishops' conference to accept the principles enunciated in Amoris Laetitia. I believe Bergoglio is convinced that by setting the national churches adrift on the ocean of Amoris Laetitia they will sooner rather than later conform to the Liberal zeitgeist of the Spirit of Vatican II. Outliers will be gradually drawn in, if they want to be players--led to compromise until there will be a new unity with the Spirit of the Modern World. The goal of Vatican II will then be truly accomplished.
This ultimate goal is acceptable to Ratzinger as well--he was, after all, the architect of much that was most radical at Vatican II--but I believe that he objects both to the ruthlessness of the strategy as well as to the danger that, rather than unity, the whole will simply dissolve. Thus, while Ratzinger sees and accepts the "inner continuity" of Bergoglio's thought with his own, as a matter of temperament he is distrustful of Bergoglio's impatience and ruthlessness, fearing a blowup. So this is the real discontinuity between Ratzinger and Bergoglio. One of "style and temperament," not of principle.
And what of the future? One thing is clear: the future for faithful Catholics cannot be won by a return to the Ratzingerian "hermeneutic of continuity." It will only be won by a return to a radical hermeneutic of faithfulness to ... the Faith, the Apostolic Tradition. In all ideological struggles compromise parties lose out in the end. Ratzinger's idea of continuity is no more than a compromise, a go-slowism or appeal to gradualism, and it has lost out to the radical hermeutic of rupture. The debacle of the hierarchy shows that gradualism cannot be regained, cannot restore a unity or order that never really existed in principle. To seek further clarity on the way forward we will need to examine further a key Ratzingerian position: the concept of the "living tradition" that was enshrined in Dei Verbum at Vatican II.