Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are definitely very different men who approach the papacy very differently: that’s easy to see! But really, they’re also very similar and build off of each other in their ministry as successors of Peter. How? Let me tell you!
The Church exists to serve God and serve his people
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is known as a talented and rigorous theologian, which is a legacy he completely deserves. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller in his book Benedict and Francis: Their Ministry as Successors to Peter says of the Pope Emeritus, “A major theme of Joseph Ratzinger…was to point out the intrinsic connection between faith as hearing and as understanding, between the audits fidei and the intellects fidei…To academic theology belongs the task of mediating between the knowledge of God in faith and the knowledge of the world through natural reason (lumen naturale), as it is presented in the natural sciences and the humanities, so that in the consciousness of believers the truths of the faith and natural knowledge do not fall apart but, rather, form a new synthesis in every age.”
In this, we can see that the Pope Emeritus presented the rational and academic understanding of the Church as servant and as bride and how this relates to the people of God.
Pope Francis takes this to the next application, which is to say that the Church is a poor Church for the poor. Cardinal. Müller explains: “The Church is for in the totality of the faithful laypeople and their pastors who see themselves as following their Lord in his mission. Church property should not be given up…but rather used with great determination as a means to…the fulfillment of the Church’s pastor and charitable works. ‘The poor’ are all persons in their existential need and material neediness…”
Poverty as a way of evangelization
Pope Francis is on the frontlines of this, but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also knew and promoted this! Again, Cardinal Müller points out this continuity beautifully: “Benedict XVI addressed a concern with his demand for a certain ‘liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness,’ in other words, its constant alignment with the Gospel; Pope Francis takes up this theme again in Evangelii gaudium when he writes: ‘I want a Church which is poor and for the poor’ (EG 198)…When Jesus calls the ‘poor in spirit’ blessed and promises them the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 5:3), he is not justifying an escapist, irresponsible spiritualization and idealization of his gospel. Instead, spiritual poverty means being radically conformed to the mind and the destiny of Christ…A disciple of Jesus cannot set his heart on deceitful wealth, fleeting power, or public esteem. He is liberated from slavery to false idols so as to serve others with all his material possession and his intellectual and spiritual gifts, so as to become, like Jesus, a ‘man for others’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)…This attitude of spiritual poverty, as interior freedom in Christ, connects those who have married in the Lord, who are rightly concerned also about the physical well-being of their family, with those Christians who have taken a vow of poverty.”
Authentic theology of liberation
Liberation theology often gets a bad rap and is terribly understood. Understood rightly, liberation theology is about an encounter with Jesus in imitation of the Good Samaritan. “Being a Christian is not the sum total of metaphysics and ethics or the reduction of one set of questions to another. Being Christian is no beautiful liturgy on Sunday plus social ethics for the rest of the week, nor is it traditional form plus social critique. Being a Christian starts in the encounter with Jesus and is lived out as a venture for others,” Cardinal Müller writes.
Gustavo Gutiérrez gave a lecture in the 1990s about this (which then-Cardinal Ratzinger attended) and emphasized: “Consequently, the ultimate reason for engagement on behalf of the poor and the oppressed lies not in the analysis of society that we employ, nor in the direct experience the we may make with poverty, nor in our human compassion. All these are valid reasons that no doubt play an important role in our life and in our relationships. Nevertheless, for Christians this engagement builds fundamentally on faith in the God of Jesus Christ. It is a theocentric option and a prophetic option, which has its roots in the gratuitousness of God’s love and is demanded by it.”
Similarly, Pope Francis reflects this in Evangelii gaudium 200 when he wrote, “The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”
The purpose of the Roman Curia is to help the Pope in his exercise of primacy for all the Churches. This is different from the Synod of Bishops, conferences of bishops, and other federations of bishops. Therefore, reform of the Curia is about more than increased efficiency, reorganization, reducing costs, and controlling expenditures, although these things may play a part. Curial reform, according to Cardinal Müller is the goal “to bring to light more clearly the mission of the Pope and the Church in the world of today and tomorrow…In the dictatorship of relativism (Benedict XVI) and in the globalization of indifference (Pope Francis), the boundaries between truth and falsehood, good and evil are blurred. The challenge for the officials and the members of the Church is not to let themselves be infected by these worldly diseases, or else to be cured of them. In order to make God’s glory shine in the Church as a light for every person, Pope Francis is conducting a ‘spiritual cleaning of the Temple’ that is at the same time painful and liberating. What the reform of Church and Curia is supposed to accomplish may dawn on us when we, like the disciples, remember the Scripture verse: ‘Zeal for your house consumes me’ (see John 2:17).”
In this way, both the Pope and the Pope Emeritus have done much to steer the Church and the faithful away from the temptations of the world and back to the reality of Christ and of his cross. Jesus shows us this multiple times throughout the Gospel but in a special way when he hears of the death of his friend Lazarus. When he tells the disciples of Lazarus’s death, he says that it was “for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (cf. John 11:4). Our cleansing from worldly desires and temptations necessarily ends with us drawing closer to Christ through embracing his cross, whatever that means in our lives, and that is the mission of the Church and what all reform should point towards.
For more on Benedict and Francis, their specialties and similarities, pick up a copy of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller’s book Benedict and Francis: Their Ministry as Successors to Peter.