Ex-Benedict And A Cracking Religion
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 28, 2013
The conclave gathering to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who resigns today, is a crisis conclave. From this unprecedented meeting — amid allegations of Vatican corruption, factionalism and homosexuality — can reform emerge?
There are times when everything just seems to go horribly, horribly wrong. As Pope Benedict XVI stepped down this week, the first pope to abdicate in six centuries, the final days of his pontificate were marked by scandal and disarray.
Back in November, the Vatican correspondent for UK Catholic magazine The Tablet, Robert Mickens, gave a speech in the US in which he claimed the Vatican was “imploding”. The Church was witnessing “the collapse of an entire system, a structure, an ethos, a culture if you will, of global church governance,” he said. “It’s the crumbling of what… could arguably be called the last absolute monarchy in the West today.”
Those comments might have seemed a little far-fetched three months ago, but they don’t seem so far off the mark today. Of course, the papacy is one of the world’s most enduring institutions. It has been in far worse shape many times before, and so far it has always managed to carry out necessary reforms and continue on. But at least for the moment, in Rome there is suddenly a feeling that the upcoming conclave is a crisis conclave such as there hasn’t been in 200 years.
First there were revelations about a secret report, now under lock and key and awaiting the attention of the next pope. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, it contains information about bitter factionalism and corruption within the Vatican bureaucracy, including allegations about a powerful homosexual faction that is open to blackmail.
That corruption, factionalism and homosexuality exist inside the Vatican is hardly news, and after 30 years in Rome it seems highly unlikely Benedict was so shocked by this report that it contributed to his decision to resign. He is more likely to have resigned out of exasperation.
Then came allegations made by three priests and a former priest against popular Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien. They accuse the cardinal of inappropriate conduct towards them in the 1980s. By the end of the week, O’Brien, a few weeks off retirement anyway, had resigned as archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and announced he would not be attending the conclave. That leaves the UK without a voting cardinal.
The O’Brien scandal has certainly drawn unwelcome attention to the fact that some cardinals, as well as some priests, are sexually active. But what some may question is why, after 30 years, O’Brien’s accusers have chosen to make their allegations at this particular moment. It appears the Catholic church’s clerical cadre has begun turning on itself, with clergy lower down in the hierarchy apparently no longer feeling they have anything to lose by making allegations about those higher up.
Keith O’Brien is emblematic of a type that is common in the Catholic hierarchy. Back in 2003, when Rome first announced that he was to be made a cardinal, he gave a initial series of media interviews indicating support for a more liberal approach to priestly celibacy, homosexuality and contraception, but was forced to make a grovelling retraction of these views. In recent years he has become a strident critic of same-sex marriage, to the extent that the gay rights charity Stonewall named him “bigot of the year” in 2012. But many Scottish Catholics have suspected all along that his real views were not the same as his public views. Now it appears he was a gay man all along.
IF JOHN PAUL II WAS A RADICAL POPE, Benedict XVI has been a traditionalist. But his decision to abdicate appears to have set a significant precedent, indeed cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris has described it as “a liberating act for the future”. Earlier popes occasionally resigned for specific reasons (Celestine V in 1294 in order to return to a life of solitude and prayer, Gregory XII was forced to abdicate in 1415 in order to bring a 40-year papal schism to an end), but in deciding to abdicate on age and health grounds Benedict appears to be saying that 85 is too old to be pope.
No doubt with John Paul II’s long drawn-out last years in mind, Benedict seems to be saying that in the 21st century it is no longer possible to run a vast and complex international corporation such as the Catholic church with a geriatric or permanently incapacitated CEO.
In one respect Benedict’s resignation from the papacy is part of a continuum. Intellectually he has always recognised that the papacy began to attain the dimensions of a personality cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and that this is unhealthy for the Church and an obstacle to unity with other churches, including especially the Orthodox.
Under John Paul II, that papal inflation became hyper-inflation and hyper-activity of documents, saint-making and travel, to the point where the papacy was eating up the church. Benedict will be eventually be remembered for the way he tried to cool down this overheated Vatican “nuclear reactor”, returning the papacy to more modest dimensions.
He gave an early sign that this was his intention when he replaced the papal tiara on the papal coat of arms with a simple bishop’s mitre, as if to say that the pope is Bishop of Rome, not king of the world. During the past fortnight, he has repeatedly referred in his public statements to his “Petrine ministry”, never to his “pontificate”, or “reign”, or “office”.
It seems probable that Benedict initially expected to have a quiet pontificate, basking in the warm afterglow of his predecessor’s many achievements. No doubt the cardinals who elected him thought so too. Now, by stating that the problems the Church is facing are too much for him, Benedict is also tacitly admitting that the Church is in crisis, perhaps even that those problems are only going to get worse.
But in the days since he surprised the world by announcing his retirement, political and theological conservatives have rushed into print arguing that his pontificate has been a huge success. The recent contributions by George Weigel, Tracey Rowland, John Milbank, and Adrian Pabst on the ABC Religion and Ethics website are all cases in point: excellent in their way, except that they have little to do with the real world.
But while there is no doubt that Benedict produced a stream of fine encyclicals and homilies (the 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate in particular) that may come to be seen as his most enduring legacy and part of the Church’s permanent intellectual treasury, the only problem was that they were read, listened to, and understood by no more than a tiny elite, made up mostly of other philosophers and theologians. The Hellenistic ideas the pope was recapitulating were incomprehensible to most contemporary men and women, including the millions of Catholics in Asia and Africa who never had any cultural connection with Hellenistic philosophy in the first place.
The truth is that Benedict’s has been a most intelligent “do nothing” pontificate, even a trivial pontificate, in the sense that so much attention was devoted to tinkering around the edges at comparatively minor issues while failing to come to grips with the really big problems affecting the Church.
So we saw the pope’s penchant for dressing up in baroque vestments and designer sunglasses, the revival of the old Latin Mass, the ineptly handled introduction of a new translation of the English missal, and an attempt to return the Church to the clericalism of an earlier era, when priests were put on pedestals and the laity was obedient. A special ordinariate was created for Anglicans wanting to return to the Catholic Church, but there was huge embarrassment when the promised tens of thousands turned out to be little more than a trickle. There were lengthy but futile negotiations aimed at reconciling with an ultra-conservative Catholic fringe group called the Society of St Pius X. When Benedict lifted the excommunication on four of the Society’s bishops he committed one of the biggest gaffes of his pontificate.
One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, was an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. Just before being readmitted to the Church, he gave an interview denying the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.
It terms of administration and communications, this has been a disastrous pontificate, with few highlights and numerous gaffes. Ecumenical dialogue was more or less put on hold. Relations with Jews soured, not least because Benedict reinstated a Good Friday prayer for their conversion that had been dropped after the Second Vatican Council. In the rich countries of the West, including Australia, the Church is in undeclared schism over issues like contraception, married priests, female priests, and same sex marriage.
And if the Church’s structures were threatening to implode higher up, they were well and truly imploding lower down. In the United States dioceses were forced into bankruptcy by the sex abuse scandal and many parishes were closed down. In Australia, the Church faced a chronic priest shortage that the Vatican has prevented the bishops from addressing in any meaningful way.
It was apparent from early on that Benedict’s curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) was deeply factionalised and that he was not always well supported, especially by a group of powerful Italians, who had thrived during the years of John Paul II’s dotage and preferred “business as usual”. Italian journalist Sandro Magister reported on a “go slow” in the curia, and the difficulty the pope was having in getting his documents translated in a timely fashion: “Not everyone in the upper levels of the Church is full of love and solidarity for this new pope. Resistance to his guidelines is tenacious and widespread, and in some places it is on the rise,” Magister wrote.
Benedict’s choice of secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was the cause of particular resentment — not just because he was incompetent, but also because he was regarded as a protégé of Benedict’s and an outsider who had been foisted on the Vatican secretariat of state in order to clean it up.
Above all, Benedict will also be remembered for failing to halt the seemingly endless PR disaster of clerical sex abuse. In the popular mind, he was responsible for covering up the sex abuse scandal at the highest level. Certainly, after 2001, when he was prefect for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and directed that all files relating to abusing priests were to be sent to his office, he would have had a better grasp than anyone of the dimensions of the problem that was unfolding.
And it is difficult to get around the letter he signed on May 18, 2001, in which he told all the bishops in the world that they were to carry out investigation of abuse allegations according to the strictest secrecy or risk excommunication.
As Fr. Sean McDonagh observed in a letter to the Irish Times on December 7, 2009, this directive from the Vatican “effectively encouraged bishops to commit criminal offences in many jurisdictions, including Ireland, by not reporting the crime first to the police”.
It is also impossible to ignore the case of the Bishop of Kansas City, Robert Finn, a member of Opus Dei and the first US bishop convicted of failing to report a priest suspected of abuse to the police. Following his criminal conviction, in October 2011, he remains in office. The only possible inference to draw from this episode is that the Vatican authorities are no respecters of the civil law.
In recent weeks, to add to Benedict’s woes, we have seen the release of HBO’s excellent documentary about the sex abuse crisis, Mea Maxima Culpa. It features a pretty devastating interview with the retired archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, who says Ratzinger blocked his attempts to defrock a paedophile priest who had abused boys in a school for the deaf in the Milwaukee archdiocese. Weakland says he met with Ratzinger in Rome in 1998, only to be told by him that “your problem is you’re not docile”.
On the other hand, we now know Ratzinger was blocked in his attempt to deal with one of the Church’s most high-profile predators by a powerful rival, the former Vatican secretary of state, now Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano.
Sodano, a close friend of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, was also the protector of Marcial Maciel, the founder of an ultra-conservative Mexican order called the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel was a paedophile and morphine addict who lived a double life, with two wives and several children, whom he also abused. Cardinal Ratzinger had to wait until he became pope to deal with Maciel.
If next month’s conclave is likely to be shaped by a sense of crisis, the fact is that there are few obvious front-runners who appear to offer much in the way of solutions. Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson appears to support the persecution of Africa’s homosexuals, which suggests he lacks the moral clarity necessary for the top job. Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Montreal is apparently the victim of a personality bypass. Cardinal Timothy Dolan is an American, and the college of cardinals is unlikely to elect an American pope while the United States is the world superpower.
My own view is that one of the few cardinals who has shown some willingness to speak his mind is Christoph von Schönborn of Vienna, a former pupil of Pope Benedict’s. In recent times he was openly critical of Cardinal Sodano, when Sodano described the sex abuse crisis as “petty gossip”.
Meanwhile, the Italians are desperate to win the papacy back for themselves, and the gossip in Rome this week is that they may have buried their factional differences and settled on a candidate, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. I am told this is making Australia’s Cardinal George Pell very despondent. Not because he thinks he has a chance at the papacy, but because he genuinely believes the Roman curia, with its reputation for corruption, is in need of “significant reform” — reform it is unlikely to see under another Italian pope.