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Pope Benedict XVI: The Final Act

Nandagopal R. Menon is a research scholar at the Department of Cultural Anthropology of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

After an eight-year reign overshadowed by controversies, scandals and further alienation of the Church from the modern world, Pope Benedict XVI wins plaudits with the precedent-shattering example of his resignation.

The 2010 BBC 2 documentary, Trials of the Pope, has a revealing conversation between the producer and a close family friend of Benedict XVI and his brother Georg Ratzinger. Margarete Ricardi spoke about the Pope’s loneliness in Rome and how he frequently called his brother in Germany, and invited friends to visit him at the Vatican. Perhaps these remarks are helpful in understanding Benedict XVI and his close to eight years at the helm of the Catholic Church. It was not his first stint in Rome. He had spent twenty four years as the Church’s chief doctrinal enforcer before he took up the Chair of St. Peter. But his brilliance as a theologian, his genuine pious humility and deep faith in the centuries-old traditions of the Church did not prepare him for the post he took up in 2005. He tried to be a “teaching Pope” like his predecessor, John Paul II, and avoided getting too involved in the nitty-gritty of Church administration and management. The flamboyant John Paul II could still carry the day with his charisma and love for pageantry. But Benedict XVI is no John Paul II. - Shy, reclusive and studious, he aspired to do things by the book and thought that a faithful adherence to Catholic teachings and practices would bring about a global revival of the Church. To this end, he wrote three moving and beautiful encyclicals on love, hope and social issues. Even his die-hard detractors, like the former University of Tübingen colleague and Swiss theologian Hans Küng, were all praise for his theological output as the Pope.

But then theology alone does not make a good Pope, who is also the head of a state. And his public statements and doings, which tried to remain loyal to Catholic dogma, often led to disastrous consequences in the real world. In September 2006, Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany about the unity of faith and reason and how that could prevent religious violence. In the course of that erudite speech, he quoted an obscure Byzantine emperor denigrating the Prophet Mohammed as brining “only evil and inhuman” things into the world. The Pope’s speech soured the Church’s relation with world’s second biggest religion, not to speak of drawing criticism from within Catholicism. Churches were attacked in the Middle East and a nun was shot dead in Somalia. Perhaps the only positive outcome was a papal dialogue with representatives of Muslim-dominated countries and some Islamic scholars.

The worst was yet to come. In 2007, his affinity to traditional liturgy prompted Benedict XVI to reinstitute the old Latin Mass, which included a Good Friday prayer that the Jews be “delivered from their darkness” (read conversion to Christianity). After criticism from Jewish groups, it was revised. Two years later he revoked the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops (video), among whom was one who claimed that Adolf Hitler never used gas chambers and the figures of the Jews killed by the Nazis were vastly exaggerated. This invited an unprecedented public rebuke from the German Chancellor and caused uproar among the bishops and the faithful. The Pope had to write a personal letter to the Church hierarchy to apologise for his error of judgment. He drew more criticism from Jewish groups when he moved Pius XII closer to canonisation. The controversial Second World War era Pope is alleged to have done nothing to save European Jews from the Nazi death machine and may have even implicitly endorsed anti-Semitism, though recent research has questioned this interpretation. These incidents, particularly as it happened under the reign of a German Pope, were catastrophic personal and professional setbacks for Benedict XVI.

In 2009, the Pope courted more trouble and even more opprobrium when he said that the distribution of condoms in Africa exacerbated the AIDS epidemic. Instead he preached the effectiveness of abstinence and sexual fidelity. The Belgian Parliament censured him, the first of its kind in modern papal history, and the Spanish government despatched a million condoms to Africa in protest. However, in 2010, he suggested that it was acceptable that an HIV positive sex worker used condoms to protect his or her client from contracting the virus. It was just a remark and nothing had changed in official Catholic policy against artificial contraception, which was decisively defined in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The next to be offended were indigenous Latin Americans who were told that the European colonisation of their continent did not involve the “imposition of a foreign culture”. Benedict XVI seemed to condone the forced conversions and violence brought about by the colonising European Catholic powers. Once again, he was forced to issue an apology after protests from indigenous groups.

Perhaps the single most important challenge to the Church’s credibility and right to preach morality to its flock came from the child abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy. After the 2002 revelations in the United States, a veritable tide of allegations came up across Europe in 2010. Even Benedict XVI’s personal record came under a cloud when it was revealed that a paedophile priest was protected when he was the Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the late 1970s. To be fair, it has to be acknowledged that he was much more open to criticism from within and without the Church in this regard than John Paul II. He met victims and apologised profusely. Even before he assumed the office, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he spoke out against the “filth” in the Church during his 2005 Good Friday sermon. But words hardly made a difference to the hundreds of victims of abuse, who accused him of lack of determination in handing over the culprits to secular authorities.

The child abuse scandal was also the biggest obstacle to his proclaimed wish to revitalise Catholic faith in its European heartland. He even adopted the name of St. Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of the continent, to indicate his commitment to Europe. Mainly as a result of secularisation and modernisation processes, the Catholic faith (or Christianity at large) was already in the doldrums for decades in western European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Ireland. When the priestly abuse scandals broke out in these very places, the flow out of the Church only increased. The re-evangelisation of Europe, where many parishes have been merged or shut down because of lack of church attendance and several others have priests from Africa and Asia because of the paucity of local priests, hit a formidable barrier. Benedict XVI filled the college of cardinals with Europeans, and repeatedly rejected secularism and relativism to stress that the continent’s cultural, religious and intellectual roots lay in a marriage of faith (Christianity) and reason (Greek philosophy). But as he leaves the papal office on February 28, there is little to rejoice about Europe – vocations to the priesthood continue to decline, pews remain empty and, above all, the trust in the Church in its traditional strongholds is at a historic low.

Some of the controversies and scandals mentioned are a straightforward case of PR disaster. The Pope tweets and the Vatican operates a YouTube channel, but there seemed to be little awareness that Benedict XVI was under the full glare of the global media when he said or did things that provoked controversies. For example, the reference to the Prophet in the Regensburg lecture could be interpreted as a gaffe, but any media-savvy aide could have warned him about that passage, especially as it came close to the heels of the notorious Danish cartoons. The same goes with the controversies involving Judaism. Why was there no background check on William Richardson, the anti-Semitic traditionalist bishop whose excommunication the Pope revoked? Even a casual Google search would have thrown up pages that he held not-so-honourable views. One can argue that the Pope needs a good spin doctor. His loneliness at the top partly stems from the lack of media-savvy aides. Even his Secretary of State, the second most important post in the Vatican and the equivalent of a prime minister, is a theologian with zero experience in diplomacy or Church bureaucracy. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s appointment was widely interpreted as endorsing the Pope’s deep commitment to the “teaching” aspect of his position. But that did not save him the several public embarrassments, explanations and retractions of his words. Of course, the crisis in the Vatican bureaucracy reached its zenith with the so-called Vatileaks – the leaking of a cache of internal documents to the Italian press that told sordid tales of corruption, infighting and intrigue in the heart of the Church.

Benedict XVI’s isolation also speaks to the larger alienation of the faith from the fast-changing Western world and the Church’s inability to comprehend that Catholicism’s centre of gravity has shifted to the global south. Along with John Paul II, Benedict XVI has been at the forefront to undo the opening up to the modern world that began with the path-breaking Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The ecumenical council endeavoured to read the “sign of the times” and equipped the Church with a more confident, transparent policy of dialogue with the modern world. It did not abandon the essentials of the Catholic faith, but it gave up the penchant for issuing anathemas against almost everything modern (including theologies). Much of this was reversed in the last 30 years and a more combative tone of cultural war between the world and the Church became the official line. Secondly, the bulk of the world’s billion Catholics live outside Europe. Except for creating a few African and Asian Cardinals, Benedict XVI’s record in taking into account this reality has not been remarkable. It might even be time to have a Latin American or African Pope, but given the current composition of the college of cardinals, it is an unlikely scenario. The European focus of the current papacy too may have taken a toll here. And some of Benedict XVI’s comments, especially the one that seemed to suggest that indigenous Latin Americans should be grateful to their European colonisers, smack of old-fashioned orientalism, or at worst condescension. In the same continent the Church is struggling hard to find a coherent strategy to stem the flow of its flock to Pentecostalism and new age prosperity gospel congregations. In Asia and Africa, Rome has repeatedly tried to “reform” the many local culture-inflected versions of Catholicism in the name of battling “inculturation”, even at the expense of alienating the faithful. Such moves betray a lack of vision in dealing with the demographic shift shaping contemporary Catholicism.

Political categories such as liberal and progressive, or conservative and fundamentalist are of little use in trying to make sense of papal legacies. Pope Benedict XVI has been an inveterate opponent of homosexual unions and women’s ordination, but he criticised capitalist greed and championed environmental protection. Perhaps his single biggest legacy to the Church will be the resignation. His theological oeuvre and scandal-ridden reign may be forgotten, but Benedict XVI will go down in the annals as the first Pope to resign in more than 500 years. In the end, his precedent-shattering move has played a big role in reinstating his image as a Pope who achieved something historic. Remember that he stands in a long line of men that include predecessors like Paul VI who said that paternity could not be resigned. John Paul II thought twice about resignation and even drafted letters to that effect. But he did not dare do it. In fact, it may not be wrong to say in resigning before he became fully incapacitated, Benedict XVI has also subtly rejected the example of his predecessor who stayed put unto the last.

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