Death of Benedict XVI: Analyses and Commentaries (1)

January 30, 2023

The death of Benedict XVI at the age of 95, on December 31, 2022, followed by his funeral in St. Peter's Square in Rome on January 5, 2023, sparked a multitude of analyses and comments in the press. It is helpful to group this mass of documents into four sections, so as not to get lost in them.

1. The Funeral Ceremony

The funeral Mass on January 5, 2023, brought together 130 cardinals, 400 bishops, 3,700 priests, and 50,000 faithful. It was followed by more than 600 journalists from all over the world. Arriving in a wheelchair, Pope Francis presided over the celebration, but, because of his persistent knee problems, he was replaced at the altar by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals.

The Pope's homily was a brief meditation on Christ's last words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” which he presented as the pastor's “program of life.”

On his January 5 blog, Leonardo Lugaresi comments: “Whatever one thinks of Francis's homily (and of his behavior in general during the ceremony), it seems indisputable to me that it was an absolutely generic speech, which would have been perfect for any other deceased, almost without modification on any other occasion.”

In Il Giornale of January 8, Nico Spuntoni noted: “The absence of a day of mourning in Vatican City, the lightning procession from the Mater Ecclesiæ monastery [where Benedict XVI resided] to St. Peter's basilica in a simple van, the continuation of official activities such as the general audience on Wednesday, the request made to the governments to attend the funeral as private citizens and not with official delegations, except those of Italy and Germany, caused widespread dissatisfaction.”

For his part, the compatriot of the Pope who writes The Wanderer did not hesitate, on January 5, to speak of “mean-spiritedness,” citing a few facts:

“Many cardinals and bishops were disappointed not to be able to join the procession which carried the remains of the late Pope from the Mater Ecclesiae monastery to St. Peter's Basilica. In any country, in any monarchy, this procession takes on a particular and austere solemnity, even when it is not a question of the death of the reigning monarch (remember the case of Don Juan de Borbón, or the Queen Mother of England or Prince Philip of Edinburgh).

“The mortal remains of Benedict XVI were transported in a gray van. Neither Francis nor the Cardinal Vicar presided over the procession. Behind the vehicle were simply Msgr. Georg Gänswein and the women who have assisted Benedict XVI in recent years. In the curia, this was very badly perceived: “We do not do this even to a neighbor of the smallest village in Italy,” it was said.

“Many bishops and cardinals from all over the world, coming to bid farewell to the pope emeritus, were astonished – and let their loved ones know – by the indolence of the gestures and words of Pope Francis with regard to his predecessor. One of them declared: ‘To feed souls and not mouths, that is the mission of the Church.’”

The Spanish-language Infovaticana site on January 6 used the term “mean-spiritedness” in particular for the Pope’s homily, and reported some of the remarks made after the ceremony.

Francis's homily has already become a source of mockery. “I can't believe what I heard: not a word about the immense legacy of Benedict XVI. In fact, he barely mentioned the man, except briefly at the end, to say 'welcome.' What a shameful act. A sign of immense disrespect.” “The scandal is not what Francis said, but what he did not say. He could have delivered the same homily for his butler.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen and Bishop Laurent Ulrich

2. Ambivalent Tributes

The tributes addressed to Benedict XVI were ambivalent insofar as everyone wanted to refer  only to the aspects of the late pope that suited them. Thus on the evening of his death, December 31, Francis spoke of the “kindness” of his predecessor – kindness which he presented as a “civic virtue” playing an important role in the “culture of dialogue.”

Likewise, during the general audience on Wednesday, January 4, he characterized and spoke of Benedict XVI as the “great master of catechesis,” praising his “lively and courteous thought” which “was not self-referential but ecclesial.”

In a preface he wrote for God Is Always New, a book gathering Benedict XVI’s spiritual reflections, published on January 14 by the Librairie Editrice Vaticane, Francis says that his predecessor, “Benedict XVI did theology on his knees in prayer.” It is the same expression he used to describe Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2014, during the consistory on the family which was preparing Amoris Laetitia and the communion of “remarried” divorcees.

For the Archbishop of Paris, Msgr. Laurent Ulrich, in a declaration of December 31, Benedict XVI was indeed a pope of Vatican II: “The last pope to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Ratzinger meditated at length on the mystery of the Church in our world, starting from the conciliar constitution Lumen Gentium, on which he worked as a young theologian, as well as the place of the People of God in the dialogue between the Lord and the men and women of our time.”

“At the end of his pontificate, Benedict XVI identified precisely in this dialogue, willed by God, between the Church and humanity, the fruits which the Council continued to bear for 60 years, and at which we can still marvel today: the constant development of the Church’s social doctrine, freedom of conscience, interreligious dialogue.”

The ambivalence of the homages paid to Benedict XVI is explained by the fact that in the late pontiff’s numerous declarations, each person can find what suits him. The denunciation of a “dictatorship of relativism” coexists with the praise of “open secularism” in the spirit of religious freedom promoted by Vatican II:

- “We are setting up a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and which gives as an ultimate measure only its own ego and its desires.” [Homily from the Mass Pro eligendo romano Pontifice, before the conclave which was to elect him, in 2005.]

- “Religions cannot be afraid of a fair secularism, an open secularism that allows everyone to live what they believe, in accordance with their conscience.” [Video broadcast on March 25, 2011, for French Catholics whose government was relaunching the debate on secularism.]

In this equivocal context, the conservative prelates may especially retain from Benedict XVI an opposition to relativism while suggesting an opposition with the doctrinal and moral relativism which currently reigns in the Vatican. As such, the homage paid to Benedict XVI becomes a thinly veiled criticism of the current Pope.

Thus Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, former bishop of Hong Kong and opponent of the Vatican's policy with communist China, writes on his blog, taken up by La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana of January 4: “Benedict XVI defended the truth against the dictatorship of relativism. He was not afraid to appear retrograde in front of so many who exalt a pluralism to the bitter end, an indiscriminate inclusiveness.”

“He said that love without a foundation in truth becomes a shell that can contain anything.” And he adds: “Since when does the word ‘conservative’ mean a sin? Unfortunately fidelity to Tradition can be taken as ‘rigidity’ or ‘indietrism’ [backwardness].”

– This last word is a neologism coined by Francis [indietrismo], which can be translated as “backwardism” or “retrograde spirit.” It serves to castigate all those whom the current pope finds to be “rigid” doctrinally, morally, and liturgically.

The Chinese prelate ends with a disguised criticism of the Vatican policy of compromise with the communist authorities, in opposition to what Benedict XVI was doing: “In the Angelus of December 26, 2006, Pope Benedict exhorted the faithful in China to persevere in the Faith, even if in the present moment everything seems to be a failure. Despite his great effort, Pope Benedict had failed to improve the situation of the Church in China. He could not accept any compromise.”

In the same spirit of veiled criticism, we can read in L'Homme Nouveau of January 5 this declaration by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “We must not let ourselves be fooled by the promise that renunciation of the affirmation of the truth of Jesus Christ leads to tolerance of the diversity of subjective truths, while it leads rather to the dictatorship of relativism.”

“We see it in the brutal reign of the dominant debauchery of the Western world and in the inhuman absolute control of thought and behavior in the Asian dictatorships. For us, the word of Christ, the only Savior of the world, is: ‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (Jn. 8:32)”

And he recalls the role of the successor of Peter to confirm his brothers in the Faith: “The Pope is the principle and the permanent foundation of the Church in the truth of the faith and in the communion of all bishops and believers, because in him the whole Church turns its gaze to Jesus and confesses: ‘Thou are Christ, the Son of the living God.’”

“And inextricably linked to this is the promise made to Peter and his successors in Rome: ‘And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 16:18-19).”