While staunchly, even aggressively re-asserting Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control, he preached a recognizably left-wing version of economic justice. And while reiterating the special status of his church and his faith, he opened his rhetoric—much more than his predecessor did—to the reality of a pluralistic, secular Europe.
In countless speeches and letters, Benedict expressed an economic ethic that Fox News would label socialistic. In just that one address to the diplomatic corps, for instance, Benedict stressed the importance of universal education; the need for “new rules” stressing ethics over balance sheets to govern the global financial system; and the importance of fighting climate change in tandem with global poverty.
But this has been true of every Pope in modern times, including John Paul II whose brutal critique of communism was always accompanied by a dismay at the materialism of capitalism.
In an essay on Pope Benedict’s legacy in America, Michael Sean Winters highlights these words from his World Day of Peace message just six weeks ago:
It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism. In addition to the varied forms of terrorism and international crime, peace is also endangered by those forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism which distort the true nature of religion, which is called to foster fellowship and reconciliation among people.
That’s an authentic Catholic message – and it’s what lies behind my own concern with fundamentalism (which is not faith – but a form of neurosis) and with the moral limits we must impose on capitalism to remind ourselves that human beings are always ends in Christianity. They are never means. Winters adds:
Imagine, for a moment, the outcry if President Barack Obama had lumped “unregulated financial capitalism” with “terrorism” and “international crime” in the same paragraph as threats to world peace! But because many of Pope Benedict’s American fans do not share his clear, unequivocal suspicion of markets, these teachings tend to be ignored …
In another mark of his distance from what Americans consider conservative orthodoxy, Benedict has earned the title of “Green Pope.” He is the first pontiff to articulate a clear theology surrounding the moral obligation to care for the environment, and to link that teaching to the Church’s traditional concern for the poor. In an environmental catastrophe, the poor are usually hit the hardest. Many make light of the Vatican becoming a “carbon neutral” state, seeing it as mere symbolism. Of course, Catholics do not ever qualify the noun “symbolism” with the adjective “mere.”
Indeed. And you can see in his handling of these matters the rudiments of what could have been a transformative, prophetic papacy, one that responded with urgency and grace to the most pressing issues of our day. For a Church that is dying in Europe and for an American religious landscape increasingly marked by the rise of agnostics and the “nones,” the ability to speak to young people about environmental catastrophe and a financial collapse that came into being just as they reached adulthood held much promise.
And yet when it came to his brutal enforcement of rigid theological orthodoxy, his callous treatment of women, his unstinting opposition to the aspirations of gay and lesbian Christians, and his weak, corrupt handling of the child rape scandal, Benedict squandered this opportunity. This is all the more tragic given Benedict’s prodigious learning and theological acumen – he could have been a messenger not just for the continued relevance of the love Jesus witnessed to on every page of the Gospels, but a sophisticated, erudite, intellectually credible messenger for that vision.
I’ve already noted the false hopes of his brilliant encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Sadness at what might have been is given further impetus when you read his early theological works, and realize how much of his thinking was forged by the reformist and incredibly innovative work that helped spur the Second Vatican Council.
A resignation is truly a big deal. Since it hasn’t happened in 600 years, it changes the institution. It’s not outside the rules. The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX (1032-45), “after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.” I’m unaware of any evidence of that kind this time around. John Paul II drew up contingency plans to resign if he became incapable of performing his functions – and yet he hung on for a very long time indeed. Tom Reese:
In Light of the World, Pope Benedict responded unambiguously to a question about whether a pope could resign: “Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
On the other hand, he did not favor resignation simply because the burden of the papacy is great. “When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”
That was published a little over two years ago. And yet in his resignation letter, this is the rationale:
In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
I do think his reference to the world “being shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” is a critical qualifier here. He seems to recognize that the challenges the Catholic church now faces – its intellectual collapse in the West, the stench of moral corruption revealed by the decades of child-rape and cover-ups, and the resort to the crudest forms of authority and reactionaryism in response to new ideas, discoveries and truths about human nature – have now overwhelmed his physical and mental strength. At some point, the sheer human energy required to try and impose a moral authority already lost must have seemed hopeless.
“Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other… The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Man himself becomes a commodity‚ he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will‚ as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless‚ it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness,” – Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict XVI has been an anti-gay crusader of long standing. In a 2007 message for World Peace Day, in which the Pope had a whole range of worldly ills which stand as a barrier to peace, he singled out gay marriage as “an objective obstacle on the road to peace.” This, while the Vatican opposed a UN resolution on decriminalization of homosexuality and the removal of the death penalty for those countries which impose it. While the Vatican is credited for exerting its influence against Uganda’s Anti-Homosxuality Bill in 2010, the Pope last December met with Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, the bill’s supporter, while she was in Italy for, ironically, a human rights conference.
Should he be selected, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson could be even worse. Ratzinger’s 1986 letter on the “objective disorder” of gay people combined with his subsequent attempt to ban all vocations from homosexuals in entering seminaries was eloquent enough about his own sexual panic.
(Photo: the infamous red Prada slippers, by Getty Images.)
I can’t imagine I’m alone in wishing Hitch were still here to comment on Pope Benedict’s abdication – the video above certainly indicates he’d relish the time between the Pope’s resignation taking effect and the appearance of white smoke in Rome, when no one on earth could claim to be infallible. Though Hitch’s passing means we’ll miss his real-time observations, we still have his writings. Slate just republished this piece of his from 2010, in which he decried the Church’s handling of the child rape scandal – and found the Pope to be at the heart of the institution’s corruption:
Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture.
The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church’s own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone … is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.” (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism!
And here’s this, from another essay of Hitch’s from around the same time:
Russell D. Moore offers an evangelical take on Benedict, championing his stance on social issues:
Benedict has stood against the nihilism that defines human worth in terms of power and usefulness. He has constantly spoken for those whose lives are seen as a burden to society: the baby with Down syndrome, the woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, the child starving in the desert, the prisoner being tortured. These lives aren’t things, he has said, but images of God, and for them we will give an account. When society wants to dehumanize with language: “embryo,” “fetus,” “anchor baby,” “illegal alien,” “collateral damage,” and so on, Benedict has stood firmly to point to the human faces the world is seeking to wipe away.
Can someone point me to a moment when the Pope reproved the United States for endorsing and practicing torture? He uttered not a squeak when visiting the US. And where has he been on universal healthcare? We know where his bishops were: ignoring one vast moral leap for their usual sexual obsessions.
One should almost certainly take the Pope’s reasons for his remarkable abdication at face value. The sheer magnitude of the crisis facing Christianity in modernity is indeed a Sisyphean task for a man well into his 80s. Rocco suggests some other coincidences:
For what it’s worth, today’s date provides two possible rationales for the timing of Joseph Ratzinger’s epic announcement – first, this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes marks the church’s annual World Day of the Sick… in the Vatican, meanwhile, this is Independence Day: the anniversary of the 1929 Lateran Pacts which made the Holy See’s home-turf a sovereign city-state, with the Roman pontiff as its absolute monarch.
Nonetheless, the suddenness of this is striking. Are new revelations about the Vatican Bank or the child-rape crisis about to emerge? Is there a more urgent health problem that we are unaware of? Why not wait till after Easter at least? There will doubtless be a lot of speculation and gossip. The Vatican does all that very very well.
I was struck by the Pope’s resignation today as simultaneously profound and more of the same. For one, his act of resigning due to his being “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” (as you emphasized) can be take two ways: (1) He’s 85 years old, or (2) the weight of what he knows of the Church’s sex abuse scandal, having served as the Prefect of the CDF prior to his election, combined with the continued flow of information about this massive problem and its direct impact on the Church’s financial survival, has become too much for him to bear.
However, his abdication while still alive also gives him the power to anoint his successor virtually directly, ensuring the culture of denial, secrecy, resistance to progress, and emphasis on preservation of the Church over its people that his reign (and, indeed, his career) has personified. Color me ambivalent and leaning cynical.
There’s lots of speculation today that Benedict’s resignation is linked to some aspect of the child-rape scandal. I’d like to draw attention to what may be a supporting detail for that hypothesis I haven’t yet seen mentioned in today’s coverage: The effective firing of Cardinal Roger Mahony from all public duties by the Archbishop of Los Angeles on January 31. Though I’m no expert on the church, it struck me as extraordinary at the time that an Archbishop would be permitted to make such a public rebuke of a Cardinal. If the goal were to lower Mahony’s public profile, he could simply have withdrawn from those activities quietly.
It strikes me that we may be seeing ripples of something much larger moving under the surface. Perhaps it’s a sort of coup that reached critical mass among the church hierarchy – “Enough is enough.” Or perhaps something even more disgraceful is about to become known.
But Mahony will still help pick the Pope’s successor. Another reader:
The Pope resigns shortly after he’s burgled by his butler who he then pardons. Maybe it’s cuz I watched Mea Maxima Culpa last night but I simply cannot believe someone isn’t forcing him to do this as penance for something he covered up. There is some Godfather III stuff goin’ on here.
Amy Davidson wonders how the outgoing Pope will influence the selection of his successor:
According to the Vatican’s press briefing this morning, [Benedict] will not take part in the formal selection; he will retreat to Castel Gandolfo, and, once there is a successor, to a cloister within the Vatican to live out his days. Can he have a favorite? (One of the complaints about him has been that he tends to.) And what would it mean for the cardinals to openly argue about what they want in their next Pope—a Benedict or an anti-Benedict—while he is alive? This is a Pope whose doctrinaire conservatism has had an ossifying effect; this is a moment when we will see what other voices there might be left in the Church.
Any hint of papal meddling in the selection of a successor will be viewed with deep suspicion. You might analogize the situation when you consider the way presidents, no matter what their party, are keen to protect executive privilege in their dealings with Congress. Some things transcend the normal alignments of ideological attitude and familial bonds, and the right of the College of Cardinals to select a new pope is one of those things.
Bainbridge, meanwhile, calls Benedict’s resignation maybe “the bravest thing he’s done in office”:
The Catholic Church faces crises that require action: The Vatican Bank scandal, the ongoing fallout from the pedophile priest scandal, declining numbers of priests, and the secularization of Europe. The Church could not afford another lengthy period of inaction and indecision while waiting for a dying Pope to pass away. It needed a younger man. Now.
(Photo: This combo made with twelve file picture on February 11, 2013 shows Cardinals likely to succeed to Pope Benedict XVI who announced today he will step down at the end of this month after an eight-year pontificate. Top row from left : Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodrigues Maradiaga, Argentine Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Brazilian Joao Braz de Aviz, Philippines’ Luis Antonio Tagle, and Nigerian Peter Turkson. Bottom row from left: Austrian Cristoph Schonborn, Hungarian Peter Erdoe, Italian Angelo Scola, Canadian Marc Ouellet, Nigerian Francis Arinze, Nigerian John Onaiyekan, and USA’s Timothy Dolan. By Desk/AFP/Getty Images)
I think that is frankly the word in this occasion. A resignation is something that someone hands to someone else. Popes have no one to resign to, so this is an abdication. He has said that he would consider this. I am sure that he considered it thoughtfully and prayerfully.
It is obviously unprecedented, but I think we’ve all had the sense, both from the realities of a world where people live much longer than before and from the pope’s words, that this was a real possibility.
I find the timing of this somewhat surprising since the pope is leading the church right now through what he calls a year of faith, a special year devoted to the theological virtue of faith, the proclamation of Christian faith throughout the world.
Charles Pierce considers some of the papal frontrunners:
There is a lot of early buzz now about the possibility that the next pope may come from Africa. (Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana is said to be one of the more prominent early-line papabile. He is rather of a piece with the rest of the bishops and cardinals appointed by John Paul II, god help us all. The hierarchy plainly hopes that the event of a black pope will distract the world’s attention from his waffling on the use of condoms as regards the spread of AIDS, and a very strange episode involving the screening of an anti-Muslim film.) This becomes even more intriguing when you realize that investigators have long suspected that the scandal was particularly egregious among missionary clergy far from the media spotlight — in Africa, say, or the remote islands of the south Pacific.
My own view is that any attempt to distract from the child-rape epidemic by focusing on Africa could easily backfire. There’s plenty of orthodoxy in Africa – but also plenty of clerical sexual misbehavior, greater levels of deference, and almost certainly the same types of scenarios in which priests can and do abuse their power. De facto marriage and even polygamy among priests is not unknown. The sex abuse crisis was and is global in scale and scope. No region is immune – because the authoritarian, institutional structure is what enables and perpetuates it.
But that, of course, is not to say that a developing world Cardinal could not be an inspiring choice – just that it is not a panacea; and the church’s deepest crisis is in the West, which also subsidizes a great deal of the rest. The church cannot recruit its way back to health; it has to repent first, then renew.
(Photo: Cardinal Peter Turkson, left, of Ghana and Cardinal Sean O’Malley listen to introductions at the 3rd annual Boston Catholic Men’s Conference at Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, Saturday, March 17, 2007. By Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)