Earlier this month, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI raised eyebrows around the world when, in a letter to the Church in Poland marking the centenary of the birth of Pope St John Paul II, he pointed to what he sees as a profound thematic unity between the papacies of the Polish Pope and his Argentine successor, Pope Francis.
‘Through the resurrected Christ, God’s mercy is intended for every individual,’ the Pope Emeritus wrote. ‘Although this centre of Christian existence is given to us only in faith, it is also philosophically significant, because if God’s mercy were not a fact, then we would have to find our way in a world where the ultimate power of good against evil is not recognisable.
‘It is finally, beyond this objective historical significance, indispensable for everyone to know that in the end God’s mercy is stronger than our weakness. Moreover, at this point, the inner unity of the message of John Paul II and the basic intentions of Pope Francis can also be found: John Paul II is not the moral rigorist as some have partially portrayed him. With the centrality of divine mercy, he gives us the opportunity to accept moral requirement for man, even if we can never fully meet it. Besides, our moral endeavours are made in the light of divine mercy, which proves to be a force that heals for our weakness.’
That Benedict’s analysis will have been startling to many is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, given how from the first much commentary on Francis’ papacy has read it as a decisive break – for good or ill – with the papacies of his predecessors, rather than in continuity with St John Paul and Benedict XVI. Certainly, those who paid attention to Francis’ life in South America, whether as a seminary head, a Jesuit provincial, an exiled confessor, or a bishop championing a new evangelisation, will have expected such continuity.
Every attempt to pit Francis against his predecessors and against the Tradition has always seemed to me to be transparently foolish.