Benedict’s Resignation Offers A Chance For New Beginnings

By Donald A. Collins | 11 February 2013
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

If a corporate CEO with his record of managing this major entity had resigned, it might make a small news item in the Wall Street Journal.

However, not so in this case, not only because this is first papal resignation since 1415. Pope Benedict’s announcement on Monday, February 11, 2013 was a surprise, since most Popes die in office. He will step down at the end of this month.

Thus, the usual gathering of Cardinals will commence afterwards and the story will of course have legs, since the faithful must surely be pining for a less doctrinaire successor.

Catholics for Choice has just released a powerful denouement of the Catholic hierarchy in a video which airs the views of outstanding liberal voices such as Professor Daniel C. Maguire of Marquette University, (S.T.D., Gregorian University, Rome, 1969), [Systematics/Ethics], who “specializes in religious ethics focusing upon issues of social justice and medical and ecological ethics. He is the author of eleven books and the editor of three anthologies. Recent books: Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, (Oxford University Press, 2003); and Sacred Energies: When the World’s Religions Sit Down to Talk about the Future of Human Life and the Plight of this Planet, (Fortress Press, 2000). He is also the author of some 200 articles in professional journals and magazines, including Theological Studies, Cross Currents, Atlantic, The New York Times, Crisis: Journal of the NAACP, and Ms. Magazine.” Don’t miss this; see the video at the end of this article.

After watching Maguire and his associates cover the RC hierarchies views on all the controversial subjects, one wonders why there have not been more resignations by the RCC laity.

The Guardian’s John Hooper has offered a precis of Benedict’s tenure, which would give any observer a full understanding of why he might have chosen to depart ahead of schedule.

Pope Benedict’s resignation brings end to paradoxical papacy
Messages the former Joseph Ratzinger hoped to convey were all but drowned out by string of controversies

Pope Benedict XVI’s abrupt resignation on Monday heralds the end of a sad and storm-tossed eight-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 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 “God’s rottweiler”. Yet, like many scholars, he was timid – wholly lacking in that desk-thumping vigour needed to foist reforms on clerics whose resistance to change is the stuff of legend.

Clergy abuse scandals

The abuse scandals dominated his nearly eight years as leader of the world’s Catholics. Before his accession, there had been scandals in the US and Ireland. But in 2010, evidence of clerical sexual abuse was made public in a succession of countries in continental Europe, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.

The pope was personally affected by one of these scandals. It emerged that, while he was archbishop of Munich, a known molester was quietly reassigned, allowing him in time 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 had been 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 the pope leaves office are fewer than when he was elected, then – surveys have 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, his predecessor, John Paul II, transferred the responsibility for dealing with sexual abuse cases to the congregation for the doctrine of the faith (CDF), the Vatican department then headed by Ratzinger. Nothing if not diligent, the future Pope Benedict personally read much of the testimony and, say his apologists, 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”.

Insufficient vigour

Before he was elected to be pope, Ratzinger undoubtedly tightened the procedures for dealing with clerics sexually attracted to young people. 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 that he created a Vatican department charged with the mission that was originally central to his pontificate. Even then, the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation was viewed by Vatican insiders as lacking clout.

Curia reform thwarted

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 Pope John Paul II 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 Pope 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 his 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.

The pope’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.

Public gaffes

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.

Pope 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 the pope’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 Pope 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. 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 Pope 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.

Mixed messages

Yet another row blew up in 2009 when Pope Benedict argued that the distribution of condoms in Africa, far from alleviating the problem of HIV, 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 odd 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 Pope 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 Pope Benedict’s papacy.

As Maguire and his colleagues so eloquently advise, there are many ways to be a Catholic, many views on these controversial subjects, which can be held by “good” Catholics without any guilt, including the right to choose abortion, a same sex partner, or the right to enjoy sex without the need to procreate, since any contraceptive method couples choose, in or out of wedlock, should be ok to use to prevent a pregnancy or avoid HIV/AIDS. Gee, maybe Benedict’s successor will finally “get it” on such issues especially his rules about birth control which nearly all his laity ignore! Don’t hold your breath.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
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The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics

The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics from Catholics for Choice on Vimeo.

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