Catholic commentators on both the left and the right all too frequently attempt to employ the words and deeds of Pope Benedict XVI as a kind of “measuring stick” for evaluating the papacy of Pope Francis.
At times this is done to make the case for how similar they are; at other times the goal is the exact opposite. In both cases, however, count me unimpressed. In the grand scheme of things, who cares how Francis compares to Benedict?
Over the last five-and-a-half decades since the reign of Pope Pius XII, we’ve had six popes, five if you overlook the 33 day papacy of John Paul I.
A candid synopsis of their legacy might look something like this:
John XXIII: His deep personal desire to be liked by all, and his radical distaste for condemning error, virtually castrated his papacy, paving the way for mutiny in the Second Vatican Council and beyond, precisely at a moment in history when Apostolic authority was desperately needed.
Paul VI: Reigned over, and was complicit in, the greatest liturgical disaster in the Church’s history; a failure of such monumental proportions that humanity will be suffering its ill effects for many more generations to follow.
John Paul II: Transformed the papacy into a cult of personality and media phenomenon while singlehandedly doing more to invite religious indifferentism than any other Roman Pontiff in memory.
Benedict XVI: Made valuable contributions to the effort to restore right order, most notably in “liberating” the traditional Mass, setting the Church on a corrective course (albeit a painfully slow one), but his blind allegiance to the Council in the areas of ecumenism and religious liberty served to keep the Church mired in crisis.
So, when Pope Francis comes along and immediately goes about steering the Barque of St. Peter away from the corrective course set by his predecessor, it is perhaps understandable why some might feel compelled to draw comparisons to Benedict, but let’s be honest, the Pope Emeritus, the same who inexplicably abandoned his flock, is by no means the gold standard for papal performance.
Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:48)
Similar to the way in which we are called to measure how well we’re doing in the quest for holiness, not by comparing ourselves to our neighbors, but to the All Holy Lord Himself, so too should we consider the words and deeds of the popes, not by measuring them against those of his immediate predecessors, but relative to something far more lofty.
We have nearly 2,000 years of sacred magisterium and tradition through which the faith that comes to us from the Apostles is transmitted, and it is therein that one will find the only standard by which a given papacy can properly be evaluated.
Either the occupant of St. Peter’s throne protects and conveys this precious treasure well, or he doesn’t.
In a more perfect world, there would be no need to even question such things; in this world, however, the witness of history tells us that it is at times necessary.
In our particular day, given the current state of affairs, foolish is the man who contents himself with a mere papacy’s worth of perspective.