Here’s a little piece, just for the record.

There’s a bit of talk on the net lately based on a March 2013 piece in the Telegraph which portrays “Pope Francis’ run-in with Benedict XVI over the Prophet Mohammed“. It says that Cdl. Bergoglio sharply disagreed with Pope Benedict’s magisterial lecture at the University of Regensburg in 2006.

I’ve seen this story cited as a justification for making one’s own critique of the Pope. After all, if Bergoglio thought it’s OK to diss Benedict’s statements, no one can complain when people talk back about Pope Bergoglio’s surprising remarks. Right?

Well, that’s the argument.

On the other side, I’ve seen at least one defender of Pope Francis suggesting that the Telegraph made up the whole story in a fit of typical British-press sensationalism.

The truth is between these.

As you may recall, Pope Benedict’s speech cited the writing of a Byzantine emperor who lamented what he saw as the harmful influence of Mohammed and Islam. He denounced the use of force by Muslim invaders and their use of forced conversions. This evoked much tumult at the time of the Pope’s speech, as did his (quite accurate) discussion of Islam’s concept of God, which would make God so transcendent that He could contradict reason, or contradict Himself. That’s contrary to the Catholic faith, which posits that divine revelation and human reason are consistent and can be integrated.

As the press was gathering reactions to the speech, Cdl. Bergoglio’s spokesman told Newsweek Argentina that Pope Benedict’s remarks “don’t represent me”, and that they were “unfortunate”.

The Telegraph piece suggests that Cdl. Bergoglio nearly got sacked over the dispute (that sounds unlikely), and that he cancelled a trip to Rome because of it. He even supposedly passed up attending the Synod of Bishops. That is a little puzzling, since (as far as I can tell) the Synod met in 2005 (regarding the Eucharist), and not again until 2008 (on the Word of God). So it’s not clear what event Cdl. Bergoglio passed up in October 2006. Still, it does seem that he passed up something, and there was a real fuss at the time.

I can say for sure that the Telegraph didn’t make up this story in 2013, because it was covered in the Spanish-language press in 2006. I’ll summarize the headlines:

So the fuss started with remarks like these from the press spokesman: “It’s a pain. When one insists on doctrinal differences, it necessarily leads to confrontation. . . . When the Pope enters the field of debate about truth, whether it’s true or not, the declaration becomes unfortunate (infeliz)“.

According to the Clarin story, Vatican sources called this “unheard-of”.

The story in La Razón said Cdl. Bergoglio was cancelling a trip to Rome — though it didn’t attribute this decision solely to the Islam fuss, but also mentioned political conflicts within Argentina at the time.

Then some more stories in December 2006 reported that the Cardinal was replacing his spokesman. The El Litoral story said this:

“Fr. Marcó will give up the direction of the press office in order to dedicate himself with more freedom to spread Christian thinking through the media, as he did before, without the responsibility that his words may be interpreted as the thought of the archbishop,” said an electronic statement.

This suggests that Fr. Marcó’s statement was unauthorized and reflected his own thinking, and perhaps not anything that Cdl. Bergoglio had said.

So — to give a bottom-line assessment, based on what I’ve seen so far — the Telegraph was mistaken about the existence of a dispute between Bergoglio and Benedict on the subject of Islam. But the mistake is understandable: their piece reflects what the Argentine press wrote in October 2006. Unfortunately, they didn’t catch the December 2006 follow-ups.

I think it was a bad choice for the Telegraph to present a quote from Horatio Verbitsky, without mentioning that he wrote a book accusing Cdl. Bergoglio of silent complicity with the “dirty war”. I’d expect that in the Guardian, not the Telegraph — well, at least the reporter labelled him accurately as “left-wing” — he was a former armed guerrilla.