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The Papal Abdication

Benedict XVI’s problematic farewell.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict explained in the terse statement he read aloud, in his scholar’s Latin, to a consistory in Rome on February 11. The truth is, however, that if proper governance of the church—doing the hard administrative work needed to sail that ship of the fisherman, St. Peter—were all that is required of a pope, then Benedict should have resigned long ago. His aging has brought little new; he has been, all in all, a terrible executive of the Vatican. Not in San Celestino’s league, of course, but as bad as a pope has been for 200 years.

Some of the difficulties Benedict faced when he became pope derived from his Polish predecessor and the peculiar, fascinating way John Paul II seemed more to wear the papacy than rule it—administration by personal charisma. When John Paul II took office in 1979, he immediately perceived that he had been elected to lead an entrenched, recalcitrant (and mostly Italian) clerical bureaucracy in Rome—and a church outside of Italy that was still weak from the changes of the Second Vatican Council, locked in battles between conservatives, who thought the texts of Vatican II broke the church, and liberals, who thought the spirit of Vatican II required breaking even more. 

John Paul’s solution was simply to do an end run around both his problems. He carried the papacy with him, rather than leaving it in Rome with the bureaucrats, and although he found a few people to help him with theological applications (notably Joseph Ratzinger), he mostly ignored the Roman world and used his personal staff as a kind of shadow Vatican—more real, as the years went by, than the Vatican itself. What’s more, he used the canons and decrees of Vatican II in a parallel way. Ignoring both armies of theological combatants in those 1970s-themed struggles, he ran around the world proclaiming directly to the people that Vatican II didn’t mark any break at all—but was, instead, a fully orthodox, fully intelligible flowering of the church’s long tradition.

As strategies for sidestepping the problems of his moment, both of these were brilliant and effective. Unfortunately, they also left the problems themselves unaddressed: time bombs waiting for his successor. For Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

And off with a boom they duly went. A church bank so incompetently run that the Bank of Italy finally prohibited all electronic teller transactions on Vatican territory, in an effort to stop the local criminals who were using them to launder money and cash in on stolen credit cards. A household staff who were pilfering papers and selling them to journalists and souvenir seekers. A press office that lurched from crisis to crisis like arsonists in firemen’s clothes—apparently incapable of not pouring gasoline on the fires they were called to put out. The aftermath of the Regensburg lecture in 2006, for instance, in which the pope was accused of insulting Islam, ought to be mandatory reading for press secretaries in how never to behave. 

As, for that matter, ought the press office response to the European reporting on the gradual uncovering, from 2005 to 2010, of the priest scandals of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s possible that John Paul II didn’t entirely believe the scandals at first; his only experience of such charges was in Communist Poland, where accusations of sexual crimes were a favorite device of the secret police to discredit opponents of the regime. But Joseph Ratzinger knew the actual facts, and it took stunning Vatican incompetence to turn him—one of the heroes of that vile era, the man who publicly denounced “the filth” in the church—into a popular villain of reporting on the priest scandals.

Perhaps no one could have done better than Benedict has with the looming problems that John Paul II managed to keep temporarily in the wings during the grand drama that was his pontificate. Still, the fact remains that Benedict has not done well with them—and perhaps mostly because he was never a good administrator. He was always a serious and absorbed theologian, and his advanced age is not the cause of his incapacity.

And yet, John Paul II also reminded us that running the Vatican isn’t the sole or even the most important job of the pope. Being a teacher, a living example of holiness, remains at the center. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering,” Benedict writes, but his resignation takes from the world stage that picture of a whole life, a rounded image of human existence with a shape and a goal. 

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