VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis praised retired Pope Benedict XVI as a "great pope" on Monday amid the continuing fallout from a meeting of bishops that exposed divisions between progressive Catholics who back Francis' call for a more merciful church and conservatives nostalgic for Benedict's emphasis on doctrine.
Francis unveiled a bronze bust of Benedict in the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, praising his teaching, devotion and "monastic life" in retirement.
"Benedict XVI: a great pope, great for the strength and penetration of his intelligence, great for his contribution to theology, great for his love of the church and all humans, great for his virtues and religiosity," Francis said.
Francis has gone out of his way to embrace Benedict even as he steers the church on a vastly different course than that charted by the German theologian. The two warmly hugged at the Oct. 19 beatification of Pope Paul VI, but the symbolic show of unity did little to hide the stark divisions that emerged from the synod of bishops that had just ended.
During the meeting, bishops failed to reach consensus on two hotly contested issues — concerning gays and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — leaving the matter open for debate for a whole year before another meeting next October.
Conservative bishops and commentators have been highly critical of the synod, saying it sowed confusion for the faithful about what the church really teaches about homosexuality and the indissolubility of marriage. Progressives have hailed it as evidence that the church is responding to the signs of the times, allowing issues that were previously taboo under Benedict to be open for discussion.
The Vatican has dismissed reports that a group of conservative bishops visited Benedict during the synod asking for his intervention after it appeared a much more progressive approach was being advanced. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the reports were "hardly credible."