Benedict emerges to defend his record on abuse

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has emerged from his self-imposed silence inside the Vatican walls to publish a letter to a prominent Italian atheist defending his record on sexually abusive priests and discussing topics from evolution to theology to the figure of Jesus Christ.

Excerpts were published by La Repubblica the same newspaper which two weeks ago published a similar letter from Pope Francis to its own atheist publisher.

The letters indicate that the two men — who live across the Vatican gardens from one another — are pursuing a campaign to engage non-believers. It is a melding of papacies past and present that has no precedent and signals that the popes — while very different in style, personality and priorities — are of the same mind on certain issues.

Benedict’s decision to cloister himself was in part due to his own shy, bookish nature, but also to make clear that he was no longer pope and that his successor was in charge.

Benedict has been seen only a handful of times since his retirement, and only once with Francis at an official Vatican ceremony in July. A prolific writer, he has published nothing since retiring — except for the encyclical The Light of Faith which was signed by Francis but was written almost entirely by Benedict before he resigned.

All of which made Repubblica’s publication of his letter to mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi all the more remarkable, since it came out of the blue. The Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said it was coincidence the two men wrote to two Italian atheists on the same topic.

In Benedict’s letter, he responded to Mr Odifreddi’s 2011 book Dear Pope, I’m Writing You, which in turn was the Italian’s response to Benedict’s classic Introduction to Christianity, perhaps his best-known work.

Mr Odifreddi posed a series of arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church’s sex abuse scandal. Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican office responsible for abuse cases, and was pope when scandal erupted in 2010.

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