This photo shows a complete copy of a letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis that the Vatican released March 17, 2018, after coming under blistering criticism for previously selectively citing it in a news release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it. The previously hidden part of the letter, in which the Vatican blurred the final two lines of the letter's first page, provides the real explanation why Benedict refused to provide commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis' theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Vatican bows to pressure, releases retired pope's letter

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Stung by accusations of spreading "fake news," the Vatican on Saturday (March 17) released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.

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The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis' theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.

In addition to saying he didn't have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched "virulent," ''anti-papist" attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was "surprised" the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume "The Theology of Pope Francis."

"I'm certain you can understand why I'm declining," Benedict wrote.

In this photo of a letter released by Vatican Media, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI praises a volume of books about the theological training of Pope Francis. The Vatican admitted March 14, 2018, that it blurred the final two lines of the letter's first page, where Benedict begins to acknowledge that he didn't read the books and doesn't have time to write a theological assessment of Francis as requested. (Vatican Media photo via AP)

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The Vatican's Secretariat for Communications said Saturday it was releasing the full text of the letter due to the controversy over the "presumed manipulation" of information when the volume was launched Monday with great fanfare on the eve of Francis' anniversary.

It said its decision to withhold part of the letter at the time was based on its desire for reserve, "not because of any desire to censor."

The "Lettergate" scandal has embarrassed the Vatican's communications operations and fueled the growing chasm between supporters of Francis' pastoral-focused papacy and conservatives who long for the doctrine-minded tenure of Benedict.

A Twitter hashtag #releasetheletter went viral among Catholic conservatives as the scandal widened.

The Secretariat for Communication, in particular, was accused of spreading "fake news" for having omitted key parts of Benedict's letter and — as The Associated Press reported — digitally blurring a photograph of the document where Benedict started to explain why he wouldn't comment on the book.

Photojournalism industry standards forbid such manipulation of a photo, especially if it alters the content and meaning of the image, as it did.

Many commentators noted the irony of accusations that the Vatican's communications office was spreading "fake news," since Francis dedicated his annual message for the church's social communications day to fighting "fake news" and the distortion of information. Francis has frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.

The scandal began when the prefect of the communications office, Monsignor Dario Vigano, read part of Benedict's letter aloud at the book presentation Monday. Vigano explained that he had sent Benedict the 11-volume set months ago in hopes of eliciting a theological commentary from the retired pope.

In the parts of Benedict's letter that Vigano chose to read, Benedict confirmed that Francis has a solid theological and philosophical training and he praised the book initiative for showing the "interior continuity" between the two papacies. He wrote it was "foolish prejudice" to paint Francis as only a practical man devoid of theology and Benedict as a mere academic who knew nothing of the lives of ordinary faithful.

Vigano held up the letter as evidence of the theological continuity between the two papacies, an effort to blunt conservative critics of Francis' mercy-over-morals priorities and emphasis on "discernment" over hard-and-fast doctrine.

But Benedict's full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano's presentation, press release or accompanying photo. That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn't.

As a result, Vigano's effort to show papal continuity effectively backfired. Benedict's harsh criticism of German theologian Peter Huenermann, who penned one of the 11 books, laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes.

The first hint there was more to the initial story came when a longtime Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister, published a transcript of what Vigano had read aloud at the presentation, which was more than what was included in the Vatican's press release. Magister's transcript of the letter contained Benedict's initial explanation that he couldn't read the 11 volumes due to his age and other commitments, and therefore couldn't comment on it.

Magister on Saturday reported that the omitted paragraph concerned Benedict's objection to Huenermann, who has joined leading European progressive theologians since the 1980s in penning open letters attacking the policies of John Paul and Benedict.

Left unsaid is who was responsible for selecting Huenermann to write one of the 11 books in Francis' anniversary anthology, given the author's past attacks on the retired pope, who lives just across the Vatican gardens from Francis.


  1. They should not have done what they did anyway. They should have just left open and truthful. Instead they were caught. If they didn’t come clean then they have continued to scandalize the faith through their lies and deception.

  2. Maybe, just maybe, if Vatican officials stopped hiring and listening to Opus Dei media spinmeisters with a history of working for Fox News, they wouldn’t be making such atrocious blunders.

    With those spinmeisters, it’s all about trying to put a smiley face on what really doesn’t deserve to be smiled about in the least — e.g., the cover-up of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic religious officials, for years on end.

    Maybe transparency and accountability are, all things considered, a better route to follow — and treating the people of God as thinking, conscientious adults capable of processing accurate information and thinking for themselves, without having to be led through the nose by church officials.

    Just a thought.

  3. Gotta love the dude, brother Peter Huenermann. Refresh the memory, ‘yo – courtesy here of Reuters in the 2007 article, “Theologians say Vatican doctrine office needs overhaul” by Tom Heneghan (no stranger here at RNS):

    “Benedict … headed the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] for 24 years before becoming pope in 2005 … ‘The structure of the CDF must be reformed,’ Peter Huenermann told Reuters … ‘It still operates just like the censorship bureaus most European countries had until the end of the 19th century … It has a small staff of functionaries … who work from denunciations they get. But we live in a time when theologians everywhere are constantly researching new topics. There are many new issues, like bioethics and technology. … We still trust [Pope Benedict] enough to show some understanding for this.'”


    So Benedict, see, goes, I no like you, Peter Huenermann!

  4. “The assertion that the death penalty is justified ONLY when it is absolutely necessary for the public safety was made by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, EVANGELIUM VITAE. No such restriction has ever before existed in official Vatican teaching…. Evangelium vitae uses noteworthy tricks. Genesis 9:5-6 is cited in support of the inviolability of life (secs. 39, 53), but the words, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,’ are omitted from the quotation…. Pope Francis has condemned the use of capital punishment in any circumstances whatsoever, on the grounds that it is ‘vengeance’ (i.e., punishment in kind) and ‘an offence against the inviolability of life.’ …John Paul and Francis have presumptuously imagined that they can annul the commands of God, and have taught that the commensurate punishment of crime ordained by God is morally equivalent to crime itself…. Regarding abuse of the papal office, the Treatise says this: ‘The canons also clearly teach that a heretical pope is not to be obeyed.’ ”

    (from “A Refutation of the ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty, note 26, pp. 8-9)

  5. “Another kind of LAWFUL slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, WHICH IS THE LEGITIMATE AVENGER OF CRIME, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.” (The Catechism of the Council of Trent)

    It doesn’t sound like Pope Francis has much theological continuity with the historic Catholic faith.

  6. “Fueled the growing chasm”?? No thinking person favors fake news.
    “A Twitter hashtag #releasetheletter went viral among Catholic conservatives as the scandal widened.” Of course it did. If we waited for RNS, Winfield and the rest of the for-profit U.S. media to report anything negative about Pope Santa Claus we’d never know the truth about this pontiff.

  7. The Catholic church is the religion of PEDOPHILIA. It’s fall into oblivion is eminent. It is irrelevant as we speak.

  8. Do any of you critics think that the Holy Spirit was not present when Pope Francis was elected by the College of Cardinals; perhaps you should learn to quiet your minds…..

  9. you overreach . the catholic church has had too many, yet it is still a small minority, of members who abused .

    the vast majority of catholics were angered and embarrassed when they learned of it . and angered again at the slow pace of the institution in dealing with it honestly .

    in the end the church will be stronger because more catholics will become involved in the way the church operates and demand that the church works with transparency and great concern for any who are ever injured by the institution .

    then we can all get back to basic mission to spread the WORD .

  10. You tell me. Was “the Holy Spirit … not present”?! – “when Pope Francis”:

    (1) “[Was] called … to testify on the military junta’s systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was … accused of knowing about but failing to prevent”; “defended his behavior during the dictatorship”; “never issued a formal apology … or commented” on the case of “Father von Wernich (who) was found guilty on seven counts of complicity in homicide, more than 40 counts of kidnapping and more than 30 of torture” (New York Times, March 13, 2013).

    (2) “[Didn’t] stand up to Argentina’s military neo-Nazis ‘disappearing’ thousands including priests, (but instead) keep his mouth shut and his career on track” (Consortium News, March 16, 2013).

    (3) “Did not speak out publicly against the Argentine junta as it conducted a ‘dirty war’ killing some 30,000 people, including 150 Catholic priests”; was “accused … of effectively handing (Father Yorio) over, and his colleague to the death squads, by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work”; was “giving holy communion to (Argentina General Jorge Rafael) Videla … to the mass murderer” (Consortium News, March 19, 2013).

    (4) “[Was in] conflict with his Jesuits priests Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who ended up being expelled from the Society … kidnapped by a Navy task force shortly after the 1976 coup … held captives and tortured … Until his death in 2000, Yorio remained convinced that Bergoglio denounced them to the military. … In 2010 … in the trial against the Navy personnel who commanded ESMA’s detention center and decided on the torture, execution, and disappearance of their victims … Yorio’s sister Graciela … reiterated in her deposition his brother’s suspicions and recalled his frustration at feeling abandoned by the Church.” (Claudio I. Remeseira, Latino & Latin American Culture and Politics; Medium, Sep 17, 2015).

    (5) “[Formulated] not a socialist but some sort of populist economic system  – something, perhaps, closer to a 21st-century update of the Peronist social-welfare state” (Claudio I. Remeseira, Latino & Latin American Culture and Politics; Medium, Sep 17, 2015).

    (6) “[Succumbed to] Peronist notions of economic autarchy … the Peronism of the descamisados … combined with a certain anti-Americanism (Perón again) and … liking for strongman rule” (National Review, February 12, 2017).

  11. Oh you haven’t heard the latest news on Bill Hybels and the #CHURCHTOO temple-cleansing movement?

    Apparently, nowadays “the [Evangelical, non-] Catholic church is the religion of [ADULTERY & PORN ADDICTION].”

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