Pope Francis is completing an encyclical on faith begun by Pope Benedict XVI, but the pope emeritus is not contributing further to the document, the Vatican has said.
Speaking to reporters May 24, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denied earlier reports claiming that Benedict XVI was continuing to write the encyclical that would then be signed by Pope Francis.
"As is known, at the time of his resignation, Benedict XVI left the encyclical project that had already been started," Father Lombardi said, adding that it "now appears his successor is completing it, even if I couldn’t predict the time necessary for its publication."
Earlier reports given by an Italian bishop claimed that Benedict XVI was concluding his work on the encyclical and that Pope Francis would be writing an encyclical on poverty.
Bishop Luigi Martella of the Diocese of Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi wrote May 23 on his diocesan website that, after the encyclical on faith, Pope Francis was planning to prepare his first encyclical on the poor.
The Italian bishop added that it is to be about poverty "understood not in an ideological and political sense, but in the sense of the Gospel." He said Pope Francis revealed this when he and his fellow bishops met the Holy Father on their ad limina visit May 13-16.
Father Lombardi said the news about Benedict XVI "finishing off the text is completely unfounded," but he didn’t rule out a future encyclical dedicated to the poor.
"Let’s take one encyclical at a time," the Vatican spokesman said.
It would not be unprecedented for a pope to complete an encyclical begun by his predecessor. Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), contained a large section that had been written during the final months of Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate.
Benedict XVI wanted to use the encyclical on faith to share his reflections on what it means to be a Christian today and the role of faith in the life of man and society, especially in this Year of Faith.
In October, Vatican Insider claimed the incomplete passages had been getting "rave reviews" from those who had already seen drafts.
"The text of the Pope is beautiful," a senior bishop in the Curia is reported to have said. "With his simple language, Benedict XVI manages to express even the most complex and very deep truths using simple language, which has a widespread reach that goes beyond all imagination."
Many in the Church would welcome papal teaching on the faith at a time when, especially in many Western societies, the faith is in crisis.
Dominican Father Paul Murray, professor of literature of the mystical tradition at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said that in an "age of great bewilderment, of a dictatorship of relativism," doubts are being sown among ordinary believers "in a way they weren’t 20 years ago."
But quoting Benedict XVI, he stressed the "simplicity of the faith," saying, "It’s not that complicated; it’s not just for intellectuals."
He believes such an encyclical is also needed at a time when there is a tendency to succumb to fundamentalism. "In an age of bewilderment, people panic and look for clear and distinct ideas; there’s a refusal to live with the complexity and mystery," Father Murray said.
Living with that mystery is "part of the faith process," he said, but stressed it is "not an ambiguity that renders everything relative." Rather, communion with God makes you "automatically humbled," he said.
"You can be very confident about the truths of the faith, but that confidence is not a fundamentalist confidence; there’s a humble joy that automatically comes from contact with God."
"I suspect that will be very important for us to be reminded of," he said.
Father Murray said that to have two popes contributing to an encyclical on faith is "wonderful and beautiful."
"The genius of Benedict was just marvelous, but the genius of Francis is that he just talks over all our professional Christians and Catholics and speaks to the world," he said. "He speaks in a very direct, humble, Gospel way, and I hope the encyclical will have some of that, as well as all the great theological profundity of Benedict."