A pope retires, a Church reels
“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.
The report that he handed over in the pope’s study contained the dread news that a network of homosexual priests, and their superiors, existed – and that they were thus under the threat of, in Latin, impropriam influentiam (improper influence) ‑ or, more simply, blackmail. What Benedict had preached against was now present in the Church itself.
Two days after that doleful delivery, the pope gave an address, to the faithful and the tourists in St Peter’s Square, commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council 50 years before. In an extraordinary passage, the importance of which was not understood at the time, he said:
In these last 50 years, we have learned and experienced that original sin exists, and it issues forth always in personal sins which can become structures of sin. We have seen that in the fields of the Lord, there is always discord. That in Peter’s net, there are always rotten fish to be found.
A little over two months later, Benedict resigned – in favor, he hoped, of a man “strong, young and holy.” Indeed, Benedict’s successor will have to be all three to deal with Herranz Casado’s dossier.
As if in confirmation, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the UK, was alleged by the Observer to have had “inappropriate relationships” with four priests, one of whom had left the priesthood. He resigned a few days later, just before Benedict’s own resignation.
O’Brien had been the most outspoken of the British Catholic hierarchy against gay marriage, describing it as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved.” The gay rights group Stonewall named him “bigot of the year.” The group’s Scottish director, Colin Macfarlane, said, with a certain malicious overtone, that “we hope that his successor will show a little more Christian charity toward openly gay people than the former cardinal did himself.”
That is unlikely, unless the Church undergoes a revolution. Led by aging men who have spent their life believing, or at least claiming to believe, that a vow of chastity can be observed by all priests, it now must confront a reality of which its leaders seem to have been willfully blind.
Those who, unable to suppress their sexuality, seek relief do so – inevitably – in furtive, often oppressive ways, trading on what authority they have to enforce silence.
Benedict, against whom no scandal seems to have been whispered, this week steps away from the implications of all of that: but not, as Read’s article had it, in peace. He hands a colossal burden to his successor, however young, strong and holy he may be. For what the dossier in the papal safe appears to say is that here is a church that has covered up a monstrous hypocrisy. The next pope’s choice – to uncover and face up to its consequences, or to attempt to continue in apparent ignorance while hoping that too many Cardinal O’Briens do not appear – is unenviable. But in it lies, perhaps, the future of the Church.
PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI waves for the last time from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo February 28, 2013. REUTERS/ Tony Gentile