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Francis Reverses Benedict’s Legacy

Where Pope Benedict saw something beautiful accessible to all, Pope Francis sees opportunity for pride.

Pope Benedict has outlived his legacy. His signature achievements were moral and liturgical. First as head of the doctrinal under John Paul II and then as pope, he made clear that Catholics would be expected to live by the Church’s unchanging teaching. When Catholics urged the Church to permit divorce and remarriage, Benedict said no. He rejected the idea that new times call for a new morality.

In liturgical matters, he promoted pluralism and beauty. His outreach to the Anglicans and opening to traditionalists were the most dramatic parts of this program. He believed that those attached to the words of Cranmer or the austere beauties of the Roman Rite should be free to use them. He hoped that “mutual enrichment” would allow all Catholics to experience a liturgy that was beautiful.

Almost since the moment of Pope Francis’s election, there has been a steady attack on this twin legacy. But it received its clearest blow on Friday, when Francis issued “Traditionis Custodes,” a document that places fresh restrictions on the Latin mass. Back in 2007, Benedict issued “Summorum Pontificum,” a document that made the use of the Latin mass, suppressed after Vatican II, easier. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” he declared.

Francis has now made clear that he disagrees. He writes that the Latin mass as it is practiced “contradicts communion, nourishing [a] drive to division.” For the health of the Church, he believes, its use must be restricted, especially among younger priests. This is the legal consummation of his frequent suggestions that traditionalists are notably nasty, vain, and querulous. If true, this makes them exactly like all other Catholics. Indeed, all other men.

Benedict is often called a conservative and Francis a liberal. These descriptions are not fully satisfying. Especially in his youth, Benedict could be theologically adventurous. And despite his closeness to liberals, Francis has often said strikingly reactionary things. There is a better way to understand the differing approaches of the two popes. Benedict believes that Catholic beauty and Catholic morals are not beyond the common man’s comprehension. Francis, to all appearances, does not.

This difference first became clear in 2016, when Pope Francis said “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” because most Catholics simply do not understand Church teaching. If Catholics don’t know what marriage is, they cannot enter it. Some have accused Francis of having a low view of marriage, but the opposite is true. His view of marriage is so high that he places it above the reach of most men.

Contrast this with Benedict, whose papacy reflected a confidence that Catholics can understand what the Church teaches and live by it. For however harsh Benedict may sometimes have seemed, it was precisely this confidence that lay behind his public defense of Catholic truth. The two men do not differ in any substantial way in their understanding of marriage and sexual morality. They differ only in their estimation of whether others can grasp the truths they both believe.

One can see the same divide in the two popes’ approach to Catholic liturgy. Benedict is the Pope most associated with classical music. He loves Mozart, a fact the media rarely failed to mention when presenting him as a comic-book villain. But Francis’s appreciation for music is far more refined. This was revealed in 2013, when Francis not only listed some of his favorite composers and works, but named his favorite recordings. As Damian Thompson (an accomplished music critic and papal critic alike) has noted, these selections reveal exquisite taste and countless hours of careful listening. Only a man keenly appreciative of beauty and committed to the highest standards of art would engage in such an undertaking.

And yet it is Benedict who devoted the most effort to reviving Catholic music and promoting the liturgy. This is not because he loves music more than Francis does (by all indications, he does not) but because he believes that all Catholics can and should be caught up in the riches of beauty. Francis may listen to the most glorious recordings in his private chambers, but he has been far less concerned to promote the liturgical arts that would make beauty accessible to Catholics at large.

Benedict and Francis both believe in the true, good, and beautiful. But Benedict believes that truth, goodness, and beauty are things that can and should be shared. Francis often seems to disagree. One view is more narrow, the other more encompassing. Those who believe that all Catholics can enjoy the riches of the Church’s teaching and liturgy will lament the destruction of Benedict’s legacy.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.