OPINION – Like most people who have more than a passing interest in such things, I was surprised when I heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy.
I never had a good feel for Benedict. I didn’t view him as being terribly pastoral, compassionate, or forgiving. His harsh dogma was delivered in a heavy handed manner, and he lacked the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.
Both men were staunchly conservative in doctrine, particularly in terms of human sexuality, reproduction, and the rights of women, however John Paul was an adamant opponent of war and in 2003 sent an envoy to try to persuade then-President George W. Bush to end hostilities in Iraq, saying that the matter should be resolved by diplomacy through the United Nations and that the U.S. aggression was “a crime against peace and a violation of international law.”
Political scholars often credit him as being more influential than President Ronald Reagan in hastening the demise of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union after historic visits to his homeland in Poland where he was overwhelmingly admired and influential. John Paul was the inspiration for the Lech Walesa-led “Solidarity movement,” which peacefully toppled the communist regime in Poland and led to a return to democracy in Eastern Europe. He did more for bringing the world’s religions closer in an attempt, as one theologian put it, “to place his church at the heart of a new religious alliance that would bring together Jews, Muslims, and Christians in a great religious armada.”
He was also faced with the horrendous scandal of child sexual abuse by members of the church. John Paul was criticized for not responding as quickly as some would have wished, but he did attempt to establish procedures and brought all of the American cardinals to the Vatican to emphasize transparency in handling allegations and investigations into such abuse. He also booted Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, from Poland, for sexually abusing seminarians.
Benedict has no such charismatic vignettes or charm and has an abysmal record on the continuing problem of child sexual abuse among church leaders. It is interesting that after ascending to the papal throne, he lifted the restrictions placed upon Paetz by John Paul.
His actions in the face of the ongoing child sex scandals have not been strong and, in fact, led many to believe he has spent more time working the cover-up than pushing valid investigation.
His reasons for abdicating the papacy are health-related, according to Vatican announcements.
There are many Vatican conspiracy theorists at work these days proffering complicated and cryptic reasons behind the first papal resignation in 600 years.
Primary among them is one based on a report from the Italian newspaper “La Republica” that Benedict decided to step down on Dec. 17 when he received a dossier put together by three cardinals assigned to examine the “Vatileaks” scandal related to an incident where the Pope’s butler released confidential correspondence.
The newspaper report said the cardinals assigned to the investigation uncovered a number of transgressions, including a faction of the Vatican it described as “united by sexual orientation.” The story went on to claim those officials were being blackmailed for their homosexual dalliances. Benedict, according to a report earlier this week, has sealed the report and decided that he will leave it to his successor to handle.
Some are also postulating that perhaps the man once referred to as “God’s Rottweiler” has lost his faith.
Then, of course, there is the history of the church, with forced abdications rooted in political machinations and improper behavior, which do nothing but fuel the speculation because, like many organized religions, much of what takes place at the higher levels of the church is cloaked in secrecy.
Although it has been 600 years since a sitting pope has actually stepped down, resignations have been penned by more recent popes, including John Paul. In 1989, he wrote a letter of resignation to the Dean of the College of Cardinals that stated that he would resign the papacy if he had an incurable disease that would prevent him from exercising the apostolic ministry or in the event of a “severe or prolonged impairment” that would prevent him from his responsibilities as pope. He never, however, acted on it.
The church now faces a major dilemma.
Although John Paul II was a media darling and beloved on the world stage, he and Benedict XVI did little to actually stimulate growth in the church, particularly in the West, where membership continues to decline, particularly in Latin America.
The reason is because many believe Rome has distanced itself too far from the everyday lives of its parishioners and become too authoritarian. There is also disappointment at the arrogance of the church and its heel-dragging in resolving the problem of pedophile priests. Instead of instantly defrocking and handing these perverts over to authorities, the church instead seems focused on buying out the victims.
Although I am not a fan and believe he has done a miserable job of leading the church, I don’t believe there are sinister motives behind Benedict’s resignation. I think he is truly ailing and unable to perform his papal duties.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t more lurid details of sexual predation that will emerge from the ever-challenged church after he leaves today. Those stories will continue until the Vatican really makes an effort to clean house. But I don’t think that is behind his resignation.
However, I do believe that he is trying to manipulate the College of Cardinals to ensure that his successor will continue what he and John Paul began by holding the church to its conservative, hard-line path at a time when what is really needed is for the church to widen its embrace and appoint a more conciliatory pope from outside of Europe—perhaps Latin America, or even Africa—in an effort to stem the flow of those fleeing Catholicism and the rigidity that has rooted itself in Rome for a generation.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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