By Ben Munster, in Rome, reporting for The Blind Spot
If you are to take the word of certain online “tradcath” pundits seriously, there is a conspiracy of silence in the mainstream media over the recent release of an apparently scathing, posthumous book by late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Benedict—née Joseph Ratzinger—levelled up to the Great Hereafter at the start of January, and a collection of his deepest, darkest thoughts was released around three weeks later, having been translated from German by his friend and confidant, the Italian theologian Elio Guerriero.
The publication, titled “What Is Christianity” and published only in Italian, is an anthology of a dozen or so essays divided into six long chapters.
Its release has drawn both deafening silence and uproarious indignation—depending on who you ask. As the conservative pundits would have you believe, the book is loaded with bombshells about the papacy, the Vatican, Pope Francis, clerical abuse and clandestine “homosexual clubs” within the clergy (scandalous!). Benedict’s reluctance to publish the text during his lifetime, they say, confirms that his true thoughts were silenced by the woke-authoritarian Francis; the lack of coverage of the book in the mainstream press, they add, is telling.
“Yesterday an absolute bombshell was released, something completely unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church,” wrote “pope_head,” a pseudonymous and influential Vatican Twitter commentator, scoring around 12,000 ‘likes.” “No English speaking news outlets have discussed it, and I believe we are witnessing mass media censorship.”
Pope_head adds: “In his testimony, we hear things never before said by a Pope. Tings [sic] never thought possible to come from a Bishop of Romes [sic] lips.”
Such as? Pope_head includes a number of choice quotes that speak to the enormity of the story, courtesy of Google Translate. The first two quotes illustrate an apparently oppressive environment about Benedict, who, translator Guerrioro reports him as saying, was compelled to publish the text posthumously because “the fury of my critics in Germany is so severe that my every utterance immediately provokes a murderous outcry.”
In another section, Benedict adds that the infiltration of a “modern” approach has so debased the Catholic church that his own revered theological texts are, in some quarters, “concealed as harmful literature and were read-only in secret, so to speak.”
The rest of the selected quotes describe a kind of spiritual decadence within the clergy, “a vast collapse” of the traditional process of priestly preparation that was, in Benedict’s view, the main cause of the countless clerical abuse scandals over the last half-century. “In various seminaries homosexual ‘clubs’ were formed which acted more or less openly and which clearly transformed the atmosphere in the seminaries,” he relates in one segment. He goes on to give another example: “In a seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay office of pastoral referent lived together—during common meals, the seminarians were together with married pastoral representatives, partly accompanied by their wives and children and in some cases by their girlfriends.”
He even reports that “a bishop, who had previously been rector, had allowed seminarians to be shown pornographic films, presumably with the intention of thereby enabling them to resist behavior contrary to the faith.”
You Can’t Libel a Dead Pope. But Can a Dead Pope Libel the Living?
Even as portrayed by alarmist right-wing commentators, these “revelations” don’t really amount to much. The quotes shown above are the sum total of the supposedly damaging segments that conservatives have been able to unearth in the largely academic 200-page text, and even the most provocative tracts are unsubstantiated by further evidence or come as a minor aside in the context of a broader, more discursive theological analysis. The open admission of “homosexual clubs,” for instance, is never followed up, and is really just a single example in a longer piece, deeply scholarly and largely unintelligible, about the atrophy of Catholic tradition since the “sexual liberation” of the sixties, which Benedict blames for the abuse of minors.
The alarmists have further failed to mention one other rather significant detail. Besides the line about “German critics” — which suggests less a dark conspiracy as it does a particular Teutonic bitterness toward Benedict — all of the supposedly fresh, damning insights about censorship, homosexual clubs and spiritual decay were, it turns out, previously published in Italian daily Il Corriere Della Sera, in a single article published way back in April 2019—quite sometime before Benedict’s death!
While there were four genuine never-before-published essays in the anthology, the “tradcaths” managed to seize on the one that was published a full four years ago, while Benedict was still very much alive. And forget the supposed conspiracy of silence—that article was covered by a number of fairly mainstream organs, including The Times and the BBC.
This oversight is hardly surprising. Since Benedict’s death, the Holy See’s newly emboldened critics have sought to make an unwitting martyr of the dead pope, casting him as a victim of his successor, a secret traditionalist who suppressed his real thoughts, whether to keep the peace or out of simple cowardice.
In a book published immediately after his death, Benedict’s longtime secretary, Georg Ganswein, related the former pope’s silent dissatisfaction with a number of Pope Francis’ reforms, drawing widespread coverage. The book’s extensive praise of the current pope, however, went largely unreported. Even before Benedict’s death, there were endless, breathless intimations of deep tensions between the two popes, including an outcry over Benedict’s apparent involvement in a book defending priestly celibacy which seemed to directly contradict Francis’s position. The story resulted in a brief but acrimonious scandal, followed by the removal of Benedict’s name among the book’s co-authors.
Given that it was published half a decade ago, the purported newsworthiness of “What is Christianity,” is again based entirely on projections, delusions, hallucinations of papal plotting, antipopes and imminent Holy War.
Recognising that its actual contents are actually rather dull, commentators tried to make Benedict’s choice to have the text published posthumously (which it wasn’t) and the apparent radio silence from the mainstream press (which there wasn’t) the focus of the supposed intrigue. Some misinformed conservatives are actively enraged that it was released so late. “They should have buried the manuscript with him,” muttered one Francis critic. ”He had eight years to do something, and he didn’t do anything—I’m supposed to be impressed that he was so scared to say what he thought he wanted to die first?! Weak and pathetic.”
The conservative commentator Michael Knowles, meanwhile, misleadingly flattened the quote pertaining to “German critics” to imply shadowy conspiratorial forces around Benedict. The former pope, Knowles conveyed, “asked for [the text] to be published after his death to avoid a ‘murderous clamour’ from ‘circles opposed to him.’ How are so few talking about this?”
It’s a fair question. As one longtime “vaticanista” tells me, Vatican journalists love a story about palace intrigue—true or not. The problem with Benedict XVI’s recent posthumous “revelations” wasn’t that they were damaging to the liberal establishment and its favourite pope, it was that they were simply old news.
This minor mystery may be partially resolved, but it is only the most visible extremity of another, far deeper drama, one that is mirrored and indeed directly informed by the secular world’s onerous and ongoing Culture Wars. The drama pertains to a small but vocal cohort of Catholics who, since the 1960s, have decried the Church as illegitimate, run by freemasons, atheists, pretenders, and Jesuits. Their suspicions were only reinforced when Benedict XVI abruptly and mysteriously stepped down from office in 2013, the first pope in 600 years to eschew the traditional papal retirement custom of simply dying in office. Within and without the Vatican’s walls, the most opportunistic among these “sedevacantisti”—literally, those who believe that the Holy See is “vacant” — claimed Benedict’s resignation was a plot to install the progressive Francis; since the good pope’s passing, they have only doubled down, saying the present progressive pontiff is now dangerously unfettered…