“The servant of God’s servant departs in peace,” was the headline on an article by the British novelist Piers Paul Read this week. The piece was a eulogy to Benedict XVI’s papacy, in which Read argued that the pope had left the Church much richer in doctrine – conservative doctrine – than he had found it. Watching the televised images of Benedict touring St. Peter’s Square in his Popemobile ‑ smiling, waving, embracing the babies passed to him from proud parents as he went, speaking about the joy and light he finds in God ‑ you would be inclined to agree.
But in that final address, he also said that in his eight years, “I have had … moments that haven’t been easy … moments of turbulent seas and rough winds … at times it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.” He offered no details on the rough winds nor on what events the Lord was sleeping through, but it’s likely that those that gave him the most heartache concerned the people with whom the Lord’s servants were sleeping with. Sex is roiling the Catholic Church.
Benedict has been accused of much of which he is innocent: his membership, brief and mandatory, in the Hitler Youth when a teenager; his supposed anti-Muslim comments attributing violence to Islam, actually a quote from a medieval emperor, from which he dissociated himself; and an attribution of anti-Semitism because he reconciled the Church with the Society of Pius X, one of whose members was a Holocaust denier. He has been so accused because of his orthodoxy, and orthodoxy has been taken by his more radical critics to include prejudice and worse. But it is unlikely that his prejudices include pro-Nazism, or anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic views.
He is a moral absolutist, and the morality to which he cleaves is that of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was much more charismatic but just as conservative. It includes a strongly orthodox view of marriage as an institution that can only be recognized and sanctified if it is a union that can produce children; an absolute rejection of women priests and of marriage for priests; hostility to birth control, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage; to cloning of embryos and genetic manipulation; even, in an ambiguous way, to the theory of evolution. Marriage is indissoluble, and Catholic divorcees cannot participate in the Eucharist
These were the views of a pope who last October received a report that, according to an apparently well-founded article in Rome’s daily La Repubblica, revealed to him how rotten – in his terms – the Church was. Compiled by the 82-year-old Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado, a member of the Opus Dei sect and close to Benedict in his views, it was a response to the scandal that has washed about the Church for the past two years. After leaks of correspondence and confidential documents Herranz Casado was charged with finding out where the scandal lay, and in reporting back to the pope.