When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, the choice divided Catholics. Traditionalists cheered the appointment of a man who, as a cardinal, had for two decades ruled the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog with a mitre of iron. Liberals feared the conclave had made the most divisive choice imaginable. But Pope Benedict XVI turned out to be a pope of surprises — a tradition he maintained with his shock decision to resign. The surprises began when he issued his first major teaching document.
The encyclical’s subject — love — was not what was expected from a dogmatic hardliner. From the outset he understood that as Pope he had to make a gear-change to a much more pastoral and inclusive approach. For the wider public, that shift did not become evident until his visit to the UK in 2010. Shriller secularists predicted that the man once known as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ would not be well received because of his uncompromising views on society’s rampant materialism and moral relativism. But there was a gentleness about the way this German shepherd stated his religious certainties which showed a willingness to open up a dialogue with the secular world.
Benedict XVI’s most striking quality as Pope has been his thoughtful, cultured, deeply read intellect which has enriched the dialogue with even those who disagree with his religious conservatism. He insisted faith and reason were not at loggerheads but that the history of Western Christianity showed that the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief each add something to the other.
Early on, he did not understand the impact he might have by such thinking aloud. One of his first public forays was to return to his old university at Regensberg with a lecture on faith and reason which carelessly quoted a medieval attack on Islam. Remarks which went unnoticed from an academic theologian, he learnt, could cause riots when they came from a pontiff.
But by the time he spoke to Britain’s civic leaders in Westminster Hall there was a humility to his acceptance of the need for dialogue between church and state. Governments should balance the freedom of individuals with the best interests of the whole society, he warned. Short-term, politically pragmatic freedoms could have unintended and harmful consequences in complex social and ethical situations.
A society that judges right only by social consensus, without reference to moral absolutes, risks being enslaved by a dictatorship of relativism. The majority are not always right, as he learnt living in a Germany which was complicit with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Politics needs the moral insights of faith, just as religion needs reason to prevent it from descending into sectarianism and fundamentalism, he said.
There was a gentle wisdom to Benedict XVI which even attentive sceptics found thought-provoking. The headlines, however, concentrated on sensational issues throughout his eight years in office. The church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia, along with its intransigence on gay relationships, and its refusal to allow the distribution of condoms in Africa, alienated it from secular society. Benedict was immovable on that. But on the issue of paedophile priests he received a more unfair press.
Behind the scenes he cracked down on what he privately described as the `filth’ of priestly abusers. He pressed his reluctant predecessor, John Paul II, to take a firmer line. He introduced fast-track internal trials, extended abuse investigations and penalised priests guilty of internet offences against children. When he became Pope he took action against the founder of the Legionnaries of Christ, whom Pope John Paul protected.
But he did all this in private using canon law rather than reporting offenders to police, compounding the culture of secrecy for which victims criticised the church. Perhaps his greatest weakness was in this loyalty to the church’s clandestine self-protective culture. For all his rhetorical embrace of the importance of the Second Vatican Council,which revolutionised Catholicism in the 1960s, in practice he seemed intent on rowing back on its reforms.
He upset the Church of England by creating an ordinariate to poach disgruntled Anglicans. He has begun the appointment of a new generation of conservative bishops and he has created many cardinals of the same ilk who will now elect hissuccessor.
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit who might well have been pope had Pope John Paul died earlier, gave an interview on his deathbed last year, which offered a withering critique of Benedict’s closed hierarchical church. It was empty, bureaucratic, pompous and ‘200 years out of date’, he said. ‘The child sex scandals oblige us to undertake a journey of transformation,’ he said. ‘The church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope.’
After two conservatives, a more progressive pope? That is unlikely, though we may after centuries of white popes get a black one; two African cardinals and a Latin American are among the favourites. Whoever succeeds, it will be to a papacy which Benedict XVI, through his resignation, has subtly changed. By not dying in office, he has set aside the old idea that the papacy was a vocation unto death. It is now a ministry which can be set aside when appropriate. That will influence the way Popes are viewed. The decision to quit may turn out to be the most modernising act he has ever committed.