Benedict’s Radical Precedent

Pope Benedict XVI Delivers Angelus Blessing - February 17, 2013

In a rather brutal review of Benedict’s failed papacy, theocon Joseph Bottum worries about it:

[T]he modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. The older vision of life is the more complete one, and in today’s world, perhaps uniquely, we are in special need of remembering that.

Besides, there remains the problem of political theory that the aftermath of San Celestino’s abdication taught us. If popes can resign, then popes can be forced to resign, notwithstanding the fact that the church believes they are chosen with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And after they resign, what then? What are we to do with them? The sheer presence of a retired pope in a Vatican monastery may prove a burden and distraction for his successor. And if, with Benedict in 2013, a retired pope does not seem to pose a direct political threat, that hardly insures that no future retired pope will prove so. The political portions are part of the pope’s job, too.

I have to say that, as the days go by, the radicalism of this traditionalist Pope’s resignation continues to befuddle me. Like Bottum, I don’t see why he could not have appointed a few capable administrators, cut down on global travel (Wojtila’s peregrinations were unprecedented and unwise), focus on his writing and core papal duties, like celebrating mass on important occasions in Saint Peter’s, but otherwise simply being the Pope.

Maybe his illness is more pronounced than we know; maybe that bump on the head in Mexico was a reminder of his age; maybe the loss of mystery amid social media exposed him more than he ever anticipated; maybe he’s just dead tired (and who could blame him?). But I don’t think the current Queen of England would ever abdicate from old age – even if she were less capable of doing a far more demanding job. Why? Because she understands that she is an institution as well as a human being; and that institution requires careful maintenance. Throwing the rulebook of centuries out of the window – thus changing overnight the entire political nature and context of the papacy – would never occur to her.

So why to Benedict? Was watching John Paul II waste away deter him? Or does he sense or understand, in fact, that what he presided over is and was one of the darkest eras in the church, that the crimes he enabled are so horrifying when viewed in their entirety and his record of negligence and cover-up before and after he became Pope has rendered him morally incapable of leading such an institution – indeed in need of withdrawal, reflection and penitence? He prefaced his resignation with the words: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,  . . . ” A reader notes:

If the reason for the Pope’s resignation was physical inability to do the job, the relevant thing for him to have examined would have been his medical records.  I don’t see where his conscience, before God or otherwise, really fits in — unless he’s referring to something else? Later, the Pope says:  “Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects.” (emphasis mine)

Is there an implicit admission of guilt here, an acknowledgment that his “defects” in dealing with “rapid changes” have actually led to the condition he cites, i.e., the church being “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith”?

I would like to think so. I don’t doubt that Benedict was and is horrified by the ubiquity of child-rape in the institution he effectively ran or co-ran for thirty years or so. And I simply cannot believe that he does not understand his own role in it. John Paul II could sustain some sort of denial. Not Benedict who, since 2001, had every single case of alleged child-rape in the world on his desk. He knows more about the criminal conspiracy the Church was engaged in for decades than any other human being on earth. He knows the darkness within better than anyone else. Maybe he is withdrawing out of fear, trying to ensure his successor doesn’t open up the full files to the world. Or maybe he is doing this radical act to shake the system he knows by now is rotten to its core. I do not know. But to give up hope that someone in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church might actually respond to this massive legacy of child-rape would be to give up on the hope of the Holy Spirit.

We need to let the sunlight in again. We need penitence from the very top. We need more transparency from the Vatican in history. We need to see all the files on all the rapes of children the Church has in its possession. Or rather, the criminal authorities need to see them. It’s odd that defenders of this papacy have always said that at least Benedict did something, unlike John Paul II. And yet they do not see any connection between the worst crisis the Catholic Church has known in modern times and the most radical move by a Pope in seven centuries.

They couldn’t possibly be connected, could they? I don’t know. And we may never know. But go watch Alex Gibney’s earth-shaking HBO documentary Mea Maxima Culpa and think about it. To see what is in front of one’s nose …

(Photo: Faithful hold a banner reading ‘You are Peter, stay’ as they attend Pope Benedict XVI Angelus Blessing at St. Peter’s Square on February 17, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Pontiff will hold his last weekly public audience on February 27 at St Peter’s Square after announcing his resignation last week. By Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images.)