Monday, February 11, 2013
"Paradoxical" Pope Benedict's resigns on Feb 28
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI's abrupt resignation on Monday heralds the end of a sad and storm-tossed seven-year papacy.
The former Joseph Ratzinger came to the highest office in the Roman Catholic church with a reputation as a challenging, conservative intellectual. But the messages that he sought to convey were all but drowned out, first by a string of controversies that were largely of his own making, and subsequently by the outcry – particularly in Europe – over sexual abuse of young people by Catholic clerics.
Ratzinger had spent almost a quarter of a century in the Vatican, so it was reasonable for the cardinals who elected him to assume he understood it inside out, and would be keen to improve its workings. But, although he had been an influential and trusted lieutenant of John Paul II, the new German pope was a paradox.
On the one hand, he was intellectually remorseless. Not for nothing had he attracted the nickname of "God's Rotweiler". Yet, like many scholars, Benedict was personally timid – wholly lacking in that desk-thumping vigour needed to foist reforms on clerics whose resistance to change is the stuff of legend.
The abuse scandals dominated his seven years as leader of the world's Catholics. Before his accession, there had been scandals in the United States and Ireland. But in 2010, evidence of clerical sex abuse was made public in a succession of countries in continental Europe, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Benedict's native Germany.
The pope was himself affected by one of these scandals. It emerged that, while he was archbishop of Munich, a known molester was quietly re-assigned to duties that, in time, allowed him to return to pastoral duties and make contact with young people.
The flood of allegations represented a vast setback for the project at the heart of Benedict's papacy. The goal he had set for himself, and for which he was elected, was to launch the re-evangelisation of Europe, Catholicism's heartland: it was why he adopted as his papal name that of the continent's patron saint, Benedict of Nursia. But if the numbers of the faithful in Europe as Benedict leaves officeare fewer than when he was elected, then – surveys repeatedly indicated - it is in large part because of anger and despair in the Catholic laity over the sex abuse scandals.
For his supporters, this was richly ironic – and monstrously unfair. In 2001, Benedict's predecessor, pope John Paul II, transferred the responsibility for dealing with it to sex abuse cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican department headed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. Nothing if not diligent, the future Pope Benedict personally read much of the testimony and, say his apologists, he was deeply shocked and moved by what he learned.
From that point on, they argue, he was determined, in a way his predecessor had never been, to do all in his power to prevent the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests. And it is this that he appears to have been referring to when, in 2005, as John Paul lay dying, he decried the "filth there is in the church".
Before he was elected to be pope, Benedict undoubtedly tightened up the procedures for dealing with paedophile and ephebophile clerics. But critics have argued that a letter he issued in 2001 to dioceses around the world did not make sufficiently clear the responsibility of bishops to inform the civil authorities. Their frequent reluctance to do so was a key reason why evidence of sexual abuse did not surface earlier.
Insufficient vigour in the pursuit of his aims was a charge also levelled at Benedict after he became pope. He showed no interest, for example, in introducing specific reforms to filter out potential abusers before they were appointed to pastoral care. As he made clear in his 2010 letter to Irish Catholics, he believed that the sins of the clergy were an expression of insufficient sanctity rather than a product of defective procedures.
It was not until the same year, moreover, that he created a Vatican department charged with the mission that was originally central to his pontificate. Even then, the so-called Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation was viewed by Vatican insiders as lacking real clout.
A subsidiary aim of – or hope for – Benedict's papacy had been that he would use it to shake up the Roman Curia, the central administration of the Catholic church. The charismatic John Paul was not the sort of man to occupy his time with the reorganisation of a bureaucracy, and by the end of his 26-year pontificate, the Curia was sorely in need of modernisation.
Twice Benedict tried to merge departments and twice he was foiled. The creation of the new department for re-evangelisation meant that the Vatican bureaucracy is actually larger and more complex at the end of Benedict's tenure than it was at the start.
His retiring personality also meant he came to the job with a limited range of contacts in the Curia. And it showed in his appointments. He gave the top post of secretary of state to his former deputy at the CDF, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, an affable cleric but with no experience of the department on which he was imposed.
Benedict's failure to establish a grip on the Curia was to cost him dear, all the more because he showed a marked reluctance to consult others, especially on the impact that his words and decisions might have in the world beyond the Vatican.
The result was a series of gaffes in the early years of his pontificate. In 2006, he outraged Muslims when, in a scholarly lecture at his old university in Regensburg, he used a quotation to the effect that the contributions made by Muhammad were "only evil and inhuman".
That, at least, had the effect of stimulating an exchange with a group of Muslim scholars. But little that was positive emerged from other controversies.
Benedict offended indigenous Latin Americans by claiming that the colonisation of their continent had not involved "the imposition of a foreign culture". And he angered Jews by allowing wider use of the old, Tridentine liturgy, which includes a Good Friday plea that they be "delivered from their darkness".
That decision stemmed from Benedict's keenness to heal the breach with the ultra-traditionalists of the Society of Saint Pius X. In 2009, another raging controversy erupted when he lifted the excommunication of four of the society's bishops.
One was a Holocaust-denying Briton, Richard Williamson. The Vatican said Benedict had been unaware of Williamson's views when he acted. But its disclaimer only raised the question of why that should have been so, particularly given the vulnerability in this area of a pope who, as a boy, had belonged to the Hitler Youth.
The cardinals who elected Benedict had clearly hoped for a short papacy after the lengthy reign of his predecessor. Joseph Ratzinger was the oldest man to be given the job since 1730, his advancing years increasingly apparent during his most recent international forays and his much-vaunted attempt to keep up with the modern world by opening a twitter account.
By choosing someone who had advised John Paul on some of his most important decisions and teachings, they also showed they were voting for continuity. But if the aim of the 2005 conclave was to cue up a tranquil, stopgap, tread-water pontificate then the cardinals who composed it were comprehensively thwarted.
Yet another row blew up in 2009 when Benedict argued that the distribution of condoms in Africa, far from alleviating the problem, was actually making it worse. His claim brought widespread international condemnation, not only from campaigners but also from governments and international bodies.
So it was ironic that the same pope should have been responsible for a profoundly ambiguous reference on the same, critically important subject. In an interview published in 2010, he said that the use of a condom by a prostitute who was attempting to protect his or her client from the HIV virus could be justified on the grounds that it could represent an assumption of moral responsibility.
Vatican officials stressed that Benedict was not condoning artificial methods of birth control. But his remark nevertheless called into question his church's refusal to sanction the use of condoms, even for purposes of disease prevention. It could yet turn out to have been the most significant initiative of Benedict's papacy.
at 1:57 pm