Benedict’s Radical End

[Re-posted from earlier today]

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.

And the damage has been enormous.

Look at Benedict’s legacy in Germany, his home country:

Since Benedict’s election in 2005, the number of people leaving the Catholic Church in Germany has more than doubled, and it’s been the highest most recently in Ratzinger’s former Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. Only 30 percent of Germans are still Catholic today.

In Ireland, the collapse has been close to total. At the start of his papacy, Benedict declared his intent to bring Catholicism back to intellectual life in Europe. He didn’t just fail; he failed catastrophically, accelerating the Church’s demographic, spiritual and moral decline in the West. Key pillars of the Wojtila-Ratzinger counter-reformation – like the Legion of Christ, the creation of the repeat child rapist and drug trafficker, Marcial Maciel  – crumbled to dust. Key enablers of abuse were given rewards – Boston’s Cardinal Law springs to mind; other minor figures – including the monster who raped over 200 deaf children, Father Lawrence Murphy – were allowed a quiet retirement with no serious punishment;  I called for the Pope’s resignation two years ago, as the full extent of his complicity in the child-rape crisis came into closer view:

Ratzinger can no more be separated from John Paul II than Bush can from Cheney. And the cult of authority was John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s key contribution to the modern church. Now we see how this cult of authority was directly connected to enabling the church to enable, hide and defend the rapists of children … there is no escaping the verdict of history.

The Pope must resign. He has no moral authority left. And a new Pope needs to be selected who represents an end to the euphemisms, an end to any tolerance for this, and who will seek to restore the balance of authority achieved by the Second Vatican Council.

For me, the great tragedy of Benedict was his panic after the Second Council. There is no disputing the elegance of his mind or the exquisite meticulousness of his perfect, orderly German theology – and his work alongside the more consistently modernist Hans Kung will stand the test of time. But his post-1960s theology had as much relationship to the real challenges of the 21st Century as the effete, secluded German scholar, embalmed in clerical privilege for his entire adult life. And his early promise as a theologian calcified into the purest form of reaction and fear when given the power to enforce orthodoxy, which is what he essentially did for well over two decades. It was excruciating to watch such a careful, often illuminating scholar turn into a Grand Inquisitor. It was revealing that a bureaucrat who never missed even a scintilla of heresy was able to turn such a blind eye to the monstrous rapes of so many children. I wrote once:

Reading Benedict for a struggling gay Catholic like me is like reading a completely circular, self-enclosed system that is as beautiful at times as it is maddeningly immune to reasoned query. The dogmatism is astonishing. If your conscience demands that you dissent from some teachings, then it is not really your conscience. It is sin. And if all this circular dogmatism forces many to leave the church they once thought of as home? So be it.

When he was actually elected Pope, I was horrified by what it implied about the future. Back in 2005, I wrote:

I was trying to explain last night to a non-Catholic just how dumb-struck many reformist Catholics are by the elevation of Ratzinger. And then I found a way to explain. This is the religious equivalent of having had four terms of George W. Bush only to find that his successor as president is Karl Rove. Get it now?

I read much of Ratzinger’s theology back in the 1980s, as he assumed the power of Papal enforcer of orthodoxy. Here’s an extract from my 1988 TNR review of Ratzinger’s thought (alas, not online):

The metamorphosis of Joseph Ratzinger from Augustinian theologian to Augustinian policeman, and finally to policeman, may in part be due to the metamorphosis of the Church itself. The forces of change have been so great in the Church during the past two decades that some form of simple assertion of authority may have a prudential justification. John Paul II, however, has balanced Ratzinger’s zeal with a more humane approach. Together, they have played a “good cop, bad cop” routine with recalcitrant faithful. Ratzinger’s great gift to a Church all too easily distracted by the world is to call the faithful back to the fundamentals. But it is difficult not to feel dismayed by the way in which his earlier inspiration has ceded to the dictates of coercion, and his theological distrust of fallen man has translated so easily into disdain for Christians trying to live obediently in modernity. The man who might have guided the Church through reason has resorted to governing by force.

Ed Kilgore summarized the piece:

Sullivan’s take on Ratzinger back then was that he represented the marriage of the German Augustinian tradition (the same tradition that produced great Protestant theologians from Martin Luther to Karl Barth) with papal power, along with an unhealthy attitude about sex and gender. It’s a very toxic combination, producing a very political agenda in the guise of the non-political sovereignty of the Church. That’s why Andrew ultimately compared Cardinal Ratzinger then, and compares Benedict XVI now, to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: a man driven by the logic of theology to, and perhaps beyond, the limits of Christianity itself.I hope Sullivan is wrong about the new pope, but there are unsettling analogies in his Catholic analysis of Ratzinger to the strangely un-Christian tendencies recently apparent in so many conspicuously Christian U.S. religious and political leaders.

I don’t think, alas, that I was wrong. And the desert in which the church has wandered since has been bleak but not without oases of new thought and eruptions of real grace and persistence of real faith. Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.

May the sunlight now come in; may accountability be taken; may a new fearlessness, guided by the Holy Spirit, give the church new life when its strength and vitality are in such profound crisis. May we see real punishment for the enablers of child rape; may we see more married priests and a serious discussion about women priests. May we see a return to the core truths of our faith: that God exists, that God is love; that this love became incarnate to rid us of the dead-end of worldliness into the wonderment of caritas. This is a chance for renewal. And repentance … as Lent inexorably approaches and Easter finally beckons.

Know hope.