Pope Benedict’s resignation brings end to paradoxical papacy

Pope Benedict XVI

Source: Guardian UK

in Rome

The Guardian, Monday 11 February 2013 07.07 EST

Pope Benedict XVI was intellectually remorseless but personally timid – lacking in the desk-thumping vigour needed to foist reforms on clerics whose resistance to change is the stuff of legend. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

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”.

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.

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