Pope Benedict XVI wants out. Who will hold him accountable for his sins against humanity?
For all his predictability as a cleric and thinker, Joseph Ratzinger -- the man everyone knows as Pope Benedict XVI -- has always retained a capacity to surprise. And this morning's announcement that he is stepping down as pope on Feb. 28 certainly qualifies as a humdinger. Even his Vatican aides were "incredulous" at the news -- this being the first papal resignation since the Middle Ages. But then, since many regard Benedict as a Middle Ages kind of pope, perhaps it's fitting.
All joking aside ("Ex-Benedict for breakfast" was the one making the rounds as I sipped my morning coffee while absorbing the surprise), let us take a moment to consider today's solemn announcement in the spirit with which His Holiness delivered it.
"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." (Having been raised Catholic, I've always enjoyed the papal flair for ostentatious language. Turning St. Peter into an adjective is a specialty of Benedict's.) At nearly 86, it is true that he is old -- as popes tend to become. Lately, he has suffered from arthritis in the knees, hips and ankles, which must make the prospect of another exhausting papal tour too daunting to contemplate. And so, after honouring all his public commitments and engagements until Feb. 28, he will move to his summer residence near Rome and then to a former monastery within Vatican territory. I suspect that, the closer he comes to death, he may opt for the bucolic German countryside of his birth.
When an old man says "enough is enough" and makes a case for retirement, it is hard to resist his plea for peace, rest, and quiet contemplation. And sure enough, as the world was still taking in the news, one of my siblings offered a word of caution about the incendiary title of my as-yet-unpublished book: The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Assault on Reason, Compassion, and Human Dignity. He urged me "to take into account the way human nature tends to be forgiving of people's failings when giving eulogies; even though Benedict is not dead, in the wake of his retirement, the tributes are already pouring in and people may not be ready to hear the dirt on his real performance yet, until history provides an overall balance, in time."
These are wise words, and my brother may well be right. But then, Pope Benedict isn't just any old man: he's the first pope to resign since Gregory XII quit in 1415 to end the western schism. Since then, the papacy has been something of a life sentence for its holder. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, held ultimate papal authority until his dying moment, after several years of suffering Parkinson's disease. Whatever challenges of mobility Benedict may be suffering now, today's announcement makes clear that he still has all of his mental faculties. So, even with "a progressive decline in his strength," what's to stop him from continuing the papacy from the confines of the Vatican, formally ending all travel plans and devoting the rest of his days to housebound service to his Lord? When he took the papacy on April 19, 2005, there was very much a Charlton Heston-like, "from these cold, dead hands" certainty in his embrace of the office. So what happened?
Pulling a Kissinger?
Only His Holiness can answer that. While Vatican spokesmen deny that the resignation has anything to do with difficulties on the job (the sex abuse scandals, the Vatican bank crisis, etc.), we are all left to speculate. The resignation may well have been "a personal decision taken with full freedom," as Federico Lombardi put it, but I am less inclined to give it the "maximum respect" that Lombardi and others insist the announcement deserves. And that's not because I think that Ratzinger is essentially a selfish man who lacked the humility of many of his predecessors and was never truly worthy of the office. It's because "maximum respect" lets him off the hook too easily, allowing him to sail off into the sunset like Henry Kissinger, diplomatically immune to prosecution or otherwise free of any further scrutiny or accountability for his many misdeeds.
To be sure, there were several people willing to rain on the parade of accolades for Benedict this morning. The entire Irish Roman Catholic Church, for one, wasn't exactly throwing bouquets in his direction. The co-founder of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse said that the pope has let down abuse victims by failing to follow through on promises of inquiries, reform, or any Vatican commitment that priests or religious figures found guilty of child abuse will face civil authorities and be tried in the courts for their crimes. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) can't be any happier about the pope's retirement. In 2011, SNAP filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court in the Hague against Benedict and Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone, Angelo Sodano and William Levada, charging all four with "command responsibility" for aiding and abetting the systematic abuse of children on an international scale.
Much for which to atone
The child abuse scandals, of course, get all the headlines. But what kind of "balance" will history provide for Benedict/Ratzinger's record on the issues that matter to him most?
There can be no denying that, over the years, his scorched-earth assault on modernity and the world of ideas has left an endless trail of shattered lives and bitterness in its wake.
Let's not forget that Ratzinger did most of his damage while serving Pope John Paul II as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from 1981 until 2005, the year he succeeded John Paul. What will history say about his antediluvian teachings about human sexuality, bioethics, and Original Sin, which have denied millions of women the right to make their own decisions about the bodies they inhabit?
What will history say about the countless gay and lesbian teenagers who continue to commit suicide because Ratzinger/Benedict has ruled that they suffer from an "objective moral [and] intrinsic disorder"?
Or the liberation theologians of Latin America, who in the 1980s and '90s lost their careers and livelihoods -- in some cases, their lives -- because Ratzinger decided that their "communist" ideas were a threat to Church authority and the Vatican's control of its flock?
Or the millions of people of other world religions, whom Ratzinger antagonized with his triumphalist declarations of Roman Catholic supremacy -- in one infamous case prompting charges of a holy war against Muslims that led to violent protests and the death of a Somalian nun?
In the spirit of fairness and balance, I am inclined to give Benedict a pass on the Vatican banking scandal. (Well, except for the shoddy treatment of his butler, and the crocodile tears of his subsequent pardoning of the man.) But even in this case, any dispensation for the pontiff's attempts to fix a problem that has plagued the Vatican for decades must be tempered by our knowledge that a higher transparency rating tends to be good for public relations, as well as business. And Benedict, for all his bungling of the child abuse file, has always placed a high priority on good PR.
There are those who would argue -- and I am one of them -- that Ratzinger/Benedict's overall record should preclude any possibility of a cozy retirement or diplomatic immunity from the abuse scandals. Even if he doesn't end up in the World Court (and that seems about as likely as an appearance there by Kissinger), the outgoing leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics should at least be held accountable for promoting a toxic theology whose destructive impact can be felt far beyond the Church itself; for diminishing human life rather than sanctifying it; for suppressing truth rather than shedding light on it; and for turning the Church itself into a house of horrors rather than holiness for far too many.
During his eight years on St. Peter's throne, Ratzinger/Benedict has attempted to rebrand himself from "God's Rottweiler" to Prince of Peace. History, I suspect, will not grant him his wish.