Though Benedict is still living, Francis is trying to bury him. Upon his election in 2013, Francis began to pursue an agenda that Joseph Ratzinger had opposed throughout his career. A stress on the pastoral over against the doctrinal, a promotion of diverse disciplinary and doctrinal approaches in local churches, the opening of communion to the divorced and remarried—all these proposals were weighed and rejected by Ratzinger more than ten years ago in a heated debate with Walter Kasper. For better or worse, Francis now seeks to reverse Ratzinger.

The conflict began with a 1992 letter concerning “the fundamental elements that are to be considered already settled” when Catholic theologians do their work. Some theologians had suggested that while doctrine might be universal and unchanging, it could be bent to meet discrete pastoral realities—allowing for a liberal approach, say, in Western Europe and a more conservative one in Africa.

In order to guard against this idea, Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, insisted that the universal Church was “a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.” There would be no Anglican-style diversity for Catholics—not under John Paul.

Behind this seemingly academic debate about the local and universal Church stood a disagreement over communion for the divorced and remarried. In 1993, Kasper defied John Paul by proposing that individual bishops should be able to decide whether or not to give communion to the divorced and remarried. Stopping short of calling for a change in doctrine, he said that there ought to be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases.”

In 1994, the Vatican rejected Kasper’s proposal with a letter signed by Ratzinger. “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.” Kasper was not ready to back down. In a festschrift published in 1999, he criticized the Vatican’s 1992 letter and insisted on the legitimate independence of local churches.

Ratzinger responded in a personal capacity the following year. It is because of such responses that he gained his reputation as a rigid doctrinal enforcer, but this caricature is unfair. Benedict has always been a poet of the Church, a man in whose writing German Romanticism blooms into orthodoxy. We see it here in his defense of Christian unity. He describes the Church as “a love story between God and humanity” that tends toward unity. He hears the gospel as a kind of theological ninth symphony, in which all humanity is drawn together as one:

The basic idea of sacred history is that of gathering together, of uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God. There is only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies.

The Church is not “merely a structure that can be changed or demolished at will, which would have nothing to do with the reality of faith as such.” A “form of bodiliness belongs to the Church herself.” This form, this body, must be loved and respected, not put on the rack.

Here we begin to see how the question of the universality of the Church affects apparently unrelated questions, such as communion and divorce and remarriage. Ratzinger cited 1 Corinthians, where Paul describes the unity of the Church in terms of two sacraments—communion and matrimony. Just as the two become one flesh in marriage, so in the Eucharist the many become one body. “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”

The connections Paul draws between marriage, the Eucharist, and Church unity should serve as a warning for whoever would tamper with one of the three. If the one body of the universal Church can be divided, the “one flesh” of a married couple can be as well. And communion—the sign of unity of belief and practice—can turn to disunion, with people who do not share the same beliefs joining together as though they did.

Kasper’s rejoinder came in an essay published in English by America. It is the earliest and most succinct expression of what would become Pope Francis’s program. It begins with a key distinction: “I reached my position not from abstract reasoning but from pastoral experience.” Kasper then decries the “adamant refusal of Communion to all divorced and remarried persons and the highly restrictive rules for eucharistic hospitality.” Here we have it—all the controversies of the Francis era, more than a decade before his election.

(It should be noted that overwrought terms like adamant and highly restrictive, for which Kasper has sometimes been criticized, were introduced by an enthusiastic translator and have no equivalent in the German text.)

Hovering in the background of this dispute, as of so many Catholic disputes, is the issue of liturgy. Ratzinger was already known as an advocate of the “reform of the reform”—a program that avoids liturgical disruption, while slowly bringing the liturgy back into continuity with its historic form. Kasper, by contrast, uses the disruption that followed Vatican II to justify further changes in Catholic life: “Our people are well aware of the flexibility of laws and regulations; they have experienced a great deal of it over the past decades. They lived through changes that no one anticipated or even thought possible.” Evelyn Waugh described how Catholics at the time of the Council underwent “a superficial revolution in what then seemed permanent.” Kasper embraces that superficial revolution, hoping that it will justify another, profounder one.

He laments that Ratzinger does not see things his way: “Regrettably, Cardinal Ratzinger has approached the problem of the relationship between the universal church and local churches from a purely abstract and theoretical point of view, without taking into account concrete pastoral situations and experiences.” Ratzinger has failed to consult what Kasper calls the “data” of experience: “To history, therefore, we must turn for sound theology,” where we will find many examples of a commendable “diversity.”

Though Kasper’s language is strewn with clichés (“data,” “diversity,” “experience”), it has genuine rhetorical appeal. We want to believe that there can be peace, peace, though there is no peace between Church and world. Just as we can be moved by visions of unity, we can be beguiled by promises of comfort. The contrast between the two men is thus rhetorical as well as doctrinal: Ratzinger inspires; Kasper relieves.

America’s editors invited Ratzinger to respond, and he reluctantly agreed. His reply notes that baptism is a truly trinitarian event; we are baptized not merely in but into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We are not made members of one of various local Christian associations, but are united with God.  For this reason, “Anyone baptized in the church in Berlin is always at home in the church in Rome or in New York or in Kinshasa or in Bangalore or wherever, as if he or she had been baptized there. He or she does not need to file a change-of-address form; it is one and the same church.”

Kasper closed the debate in 2001 with a letter to the editor, in which he argued that it “cannot be wholly wrongheaded … to ask about concrete actions, not in political, but in pastoral life.” There the controversy seemed to end. Ratzinger became pope and Kasper’s proposal was forgotten.

Twelve years later, a newly elected Pope Francis gave Kasper’s proposal new life. In his first Angelus address, Francis singled out Kasper for praise, reintroducing him to the universal Church as “a good theologian, a talented theologian” whose latest book had done the new pope “so much good.” We now know that Francis had been reading Kasper closely for many years. Though he is usually portrayed as spontaneous and non-ideological, Francis has steadily advanced the agenda that Kasper outlined over a decade ago.

In the face of this challenge, Benedict has kept an almost perfect silence. There is hardly any need to add to the words in which he resoundingly rejected the program of Kasper and Francis. And yet the awkwardness remains. No pope in living memory has so directly opposed his predecessor—who, in this instance, happens to live just up the hill. This is why supporters of Francis’s agenda become nervous whenever Benedict speaks, as he recently did in praise of Cardinal Sarah. Were the two men in genuine accord, partisans of Francis would not fear the learned, gentle German who walks the Vatican Gardens.

And so the two popes, active and emeritus, speaking and silent, remain at odds. In the end, it does not matter who comes last or speaks most; what matters is who thinks with the mind of a Church that has seen countless heresies come and go. When Benedict’s enraptured words on this subject are compared to the platitudes of his successor, it is hard not to notice a difference: One pope echoes the apostles, and the other repeats Walter Kasper. Because this difference in speech reflects a difference in belief, a prediction can be made. Regardless of who dies first, Benedict will outlive Francis.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.

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