Even before he was elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger never had a reputation for radical thinking or doing. In the 1960s he flirted briefly with some of the more liberal ideas that were in the air including those of Hans Küng but the phase soon passed. For the rest of his career as priest, university teacher, bishop and then pope he was steady and conservative, stolid, even.
He was billed as an intellectual with a sharp mind and fine intelligence. John Allen’s biography of Cardinal Ratzinger was subtitled “the Vatican’s enforcer” and it was easy to give him nicknames like Gottweiler (a variant on “Mastino di Dio” applied to various cardinals and crusaders). But in practice he was better known for the bricks he dropped like the 2006 Regensburg address or his handling of the Holocaust denying bishop Williamson in 2010. The internal Vatican divisions which became public with the Vatileaks affair showed how incapable he was in dealing with political shenanigans of the Roman Curia. At the beginning of his reign, he said he would clean up the Church after the scandals of pedophile priests and episcopal cover-ups but the cover-ups continue and the wound is still there. Some critics went much further “utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of priests who abused children” wrote one American Catholic.
Benedict implicitly admitted his lack of political savoir faire in his speech at the Wednesday audience when he criticised ambitious and careerist priests and said explicitly that he was no longer up to the job.
More than God’s Mastiff, he is Winnie the Pope especially now that he has abdicated, he comes across as bumbling, well-meaning but ineffectual.
Winnie the Pooh was a “bear of little brain” because he had difficulties with the alphabet but he was extremely able to weave fruitful relationships with the other denizens of the 100 acre wood. Joseph Ratzinger in contrast, has every skill as a scribe but lacks the understanding and energy to see and then face the political difficulties inherent in the job of a Roman Pontiff (a feature which makes him all the more attactive, by the way).
This lacklustre pontificate, though, could well signal the most revolutionary moment in the history of the Church of Rome. Certainly since another humble German priest, one Martin Luther, nailed his theses to the cathedral door in 1517.
With his abdication, he has changed not just the face but the substance of the Roman Catholic church. Even though the possibility of a pope stepping down was introduced in a 1983 Canon Law reform, Benedict’s predecessor made it abundantly clear in his words and above all in his actions that the papacy was for life. John Paul’s illness and decline were extremely public; at no stage was he going to renounce his position even when he was no longer able to carry out its duties. There was a mediæval element to the final years of Karol Woytila’s pontificate which contrasted starkly with the modernity of his methods.
Woytila was the man who brought the Vatican and the papacy into the 20th century media. He made them global not just in followers and ideas which they had been since the 16th century but in image. He used the panoply of the media to project the message which in his case was a very conservative one. He was also contradictory in his political abilities; always a strong player able to control and lead the curia he lost all control by refusing to give up. At the end of his reign, paradoxically, he was completely unpolitical.
In contrast, Benedict XVI was unpolitical during his reign but his exit has made him a quintessentially political figure. By abdicating, he has broken the transcendental nature of the papacy. He is no longer God’s Vicar – instead he is a man with a job and in his case, an old and frail man who feels that his duty is to the job and the institution rather than to a unseen link with the deity based on faith. Paradoxically for a man who has written and spoken so much about Faith and who has designated this year as “Year of Faith”, he has behaved like an agnostic.
With that wall down, anything is possible.
This does not mean that there will be married priests by Christmas and women priests next year. The Vatican is a very conservative institution and all the men who will elect the new pope were appointed by two arch conservatives but Joseph Ratzinger has shown himself to be a subversive and there are certainly others out of the 117 cardinals who will assemble next month.
As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a one day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.
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