Benedict XVI resigned as Roman Pope last week. Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, at the height of the Iraq war. Papal names often reflect a symbolic message, and his choice of Benedict XVI was widely seen as being in this tradition.
Pope Benedict XVI
A century ago, Benedict XV was an energetic and courageous man who mobilized the Vatican diplomatic corps to end World War I and to arrange a negotiated peace. Benedict XV was hated especially by the British, who considered him a sympathizer of the Central empires.
Something of the spirit of Benedict XV lived on in Wojtyla, the Polish pope. When the Panamanian leader Noriega took refuge in Panama in 1989, the Vatican resisted enormous US pressure to turn him over immediately. John Paul II opposed the first [Persian] Gulf War in 1991. In January 2003, John Paul II, referring to Iraq, told the Vatican diplomatic corps that war is not just another tool of statecraft, but must be “the very last option.” In March 2003, two days before Bush’s attack on Iraq, John Paul II argued that it is never too late for negotiations to bring about peace. Pio Laghi, the Vatican’s nuncio in Washington, told the press that this war was “unjust” and “illegal.” In June 2004, Wojtyla — although crippled by illness and old age — told Bush to his face that the Holy See opposed the Iraq war, and according to some accounts berated him quite strongly.
Benedict XVI thus took office with an anti-imperialist overtone, implicitly tasked with working to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and preventing new aggressions and destabilizations. In this regard, the German pope has accomplished very little. Cardinal Ratzinger told the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Days in April 2003 that he supported the Pope’s position on the Iraq war – a routine position, and hardly a surprise. After becoming pope in 2005, Ratzinger said almost nothing about Iraq, except to pray for peace. Benedict XVI has not been effective in preventing the wars in Libya and Syria, nor has he raised his voice convincingly against the Obama policy of making Africa into a fire free zone for killer drones.
Any pope of the post-9/11 era has the imperative moral responsibility of undercutting and preventing the War of Civilizations as theorized by Samuel Huntington. In spite of this, Ratzinger in 2006 quoted slurs against Islam from a Byzantine source, creating an international incident. This deplorable bungling also showed the political incompetence of Ratzinger’s hand-picked spokesman, Father Lombardi. If the Spaniard Navarro-Valls had still been on duty, he would almost certainly have told the Pope to remove that needless provocation.
In July 2011, I visited Rome and witnessed Vatican City fortified and cordoned off as never in the past. At the line of demarcation between Vatican and Italian territory, a series of short stone pillars connected by chains had been erected. The Bernini colonnade had been blocked off. The overall impression was that of a Holy See gripped by fear, and of a Pope under siege. Had Ratzinger succumbed to the incessant Islamophobic scare tactics the US, British, and the Israelis? It seems he had.
No help for the Christians of the Middle East
Even in the narrower task of acting to protect the Christian communities of the Middle East and North Africa, Ratzinger has proved impotent. The attrition among Christian Palestinians has if anything accelerated. The Chaldeans of Iraq, loyal to Rome, have been decimated. The Christians of Libya enjoyed full religious liberty under Qaddafi, but they are now at the mercy of NATO’s terrorist death squads. The same goes for Syria, where a branch of Al Qaeda, financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is openly contending for power with western support. Patriarch Cyril of Moscow showed exemplary support for his fellow Patriarch of Antioch in Syria, and for the Orthodox, the Syriacs, the Maronites, and the Melkites, with a peace pilgrimage in November 2011, but Ratzinger stayed home. Intervening in any of these situations would have placed Ratzinger on a collision course with the US State Department and the Israelis, and this is the point where his courage typically failed him.
The Western tradition features the idea that the Emperor or King is distinct from the Pope, and that conflicts between the temporal and spiritual powers often occur. Around the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great became the founder of the medieval Church by asserting cultural independence from the Byzantine Empire. In 1076, Pope Gregory VII preserved the independence of the Church in the investiture controversy with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Anyone who wants to be Pope should therefore be prepared to stand up to the empire – in today’s world, the Anglo-American combine. Ratzinger lacked this basic qualification, since he rendered too much unto Caesar.
In his announcement of his resignation, Benedict XVI stated that he no longer had the physical strength necessary to carry out the duties of his office. In a later statement, he deplored that the church had been defaced and blighted by internal divisions, especially the rivalries among top prelates.
It was not publicly known, but is now reported, that Benedict had been given a pacemaker, the battery for which was replaced about three months ago. While on a recent trip to Mexico, he injured his head. According to Monsignor Paglia, the leader of the St. Egidius movement, Benedict sometimes is unable to recognize persons he has known for a long time. Blood flow to the brain may be reduced from time to time, causing him to become mentally absent.
Nevertheless, most accounts suggest that Benedict is suffering from nothing more specific than old-age. He may have none of the serious afflictions visibly suffered by John Paul II during his last years, in spite of which the Polish Pope remained in office. Some have argued that despair is the one sin cannot be forgiven.
Over this past week, the world press has discussed the two most recent examples of papal resignation. The more recent involves Pope Gregory XII, who quit the papacy in 1415 – sixth centuries ago. The older but more famous example involves Celestine V, whose pontificate started and ended in 1294. Which, if either, of these two examples is germane to the case of Benedict XVI?
Two distant mirrors for Benedict XVI
Gregory XII resigned as part of a successful effort to put an end to the Great Schism in the West, a chaotic time which saw sometimes two and sometimes three popes and anti-popes fighting for supremacy. This Great Schism is little known today, so a word of explanation may be in order. One of the main causes of the great schism of 1378 to 1417 lies in the attempt by the College of Cardinals to weaken the elective monarchy of the papacy, and to replace it with an oligarchy of the cardinals themselves. (This may be what is again happening today under the slogans of collegiality, democratization, and reform.) The Schism came in the aftermath of the Black Death of the 1340s, and occurred against the backdrop of the devastating Hundred Years’ War between England and France. This was also the time when the medieval intellectual synthesis was being destroyed by the corrosive nominalism of William of Ockham. The schism represented a general ideological crisis of European civilization, reflecting also the breakdown of feudal monarchy and enormous economic dislocations. As a result of all this, feudal monarchy was weakened, and feudal oligarchy gained in strength.
For almost 40 years after 1378, there were two contending popes – one in Rome, and one in Avignon, France, the latter as a result of the King of France’s kidnapping the papacy and moving it there in 1309. For almost a decade after the failed attempt of the Council of Pisa in 1409 to resolve the schism there were three popes – one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one elected in Pisa. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) finally solved the Great Schism in the West thanks to the Roman Pope Gregory XII, who resigned. The Council ousted the antipopes of Avignon and Pisa. Finally, the church was reunited in Rome under the newly elected Pope Martin V.
For the second example of a papal resignation, we must go all the way back to 1294 and the resignation of Celestine V. The future Celestine was a pious hermit – perhaps not so different from the bookish academic theologian Ratzinger. After his election, Celestine V was surrounded by members of the rapacious Caetani or Gaetani family, who played on his weakness and sense of inadequacy, telling him he was no better than other sinners. The Caetani, of course, were greedy for the wealth of the papacy. After only five months, Celestine V resigned. The great poet Dante placed this papal quitter in the vestibule of the Inferno, among the sluggards who lived without infamy but without praise. Dante writes that Celestine “made the great refusal because of cowardice.” How close are we here to Ratzinger’s fateful decision? At any rate, the results of Celestine’s resignation were catastrophic. The leader of the Caetani gang took over as Pope Boniface VIII, and became the deadly enemy of Dante. Boniface VIII carried the sale of church offices – known as simony – to new depths. Due to his megalomania, Boniface failed to avoid a physical confrontation with the brutal King Philip the Fair of France, who literally beat him up. Boniface died soon after, perhaps of apoplexy. At that point, the French King felt free in 1309 to kidnap the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France. This was the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy, which then turned into the Great Schism in the West. The Catholic Church was in chaos and crisis for the next century and a half, as we have seen.
Of these two examples, which is more likely to apply to Ratzinger’s gesture of despair? Is it the resignation of Gregory XII, which successfully put an end to a long time of troubles and restored stability? Or is it the resignation of Celestine V, which marked the beginning of that very same long period of aggravated crisis? Time will tell, but unfortunately the preponderance of the evidence already points to the second alternative.
Roman Curia sees resignation as a disaster for the church
According to published accounts, consternation inside the Vatican is great. The Vatican observer Massimo Franco quoted a leading member of the church bureaucracy or Curia in the Corriere della Sera as saying: “Now we have to stop this contagion. The resignation of Benedict XVI is a wound: a wound that is institutional, juridical, and in terms of public relations. This is a disaster.” This official feared the end of the papacy as a sacred monarchy, with the pontiff reduced to chief bureaucrat.
Franco notes that “if Ratzinger…leaves because he feels he no longer has sufficient energy, this suggests an intolerable burden which could be re-imposed at will by those who in the future might want to destabilize the papacy…. The papal office… appears suddenly ‘relativized,” reduced to a dramatically mundane level. It is as if secularism in the form of careerism [of the bureaucrats of the Curia] had defeated this pope, who is considered timid and distant from worldly affairs…. The old paradigm has collapsed.”
During Ratzinger’s pontificate, the Vatican has been under continuous media and other attack. This is not new. Many of the conflicts and scandals have a real basis in fact, but there is also no doubt that they have been immensely magnified by the hostility of the ruling elites of Great Britain and the United States. The British, in particular, have been virtually at war with the Vatican since the Guy Fawkes affair of 1605, or better yet since Henry VIII.
Franco situated Ratzinger’s resignation in the context of this permanent crisis atmosphere in the Vatican: “A Pope who can be pushed to resign is weaker, and exposed to pressure which can become overwhelming. It is impossible to remove the suspicion that the abrupt action carried out by Ratzinger comes after a long series of continuous and crushing pressures behind the scenes, of which the Vatileaks scandal, the upheaval at the Institute of Religious Works (the IOR, known as the ‘Pope’s bank’), and the trial of the pope’s butler Paolo Gabriele have been only a part.”
The worldwide scandals involving pedophile priests have doubtless exacted a heavy toll. A recent example is that of Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who has now been exposed for systematically protecting pedophile priests from exposure and prosecution. Mahony, according to the Washington Post, is lucky not to be in jail himself. Even so, it looks like Mahony will be allowed to attend the conclave when it begins on March 15, and will thus be judged worthy of casting a vote for the next pontiff. According to some accounts, a significant number of the notoriously reactionary American Catholic bishops, including some in the Roman Curia, are protecting Mahony from any accountability or sanctions within the church. The potential here for even greater scandal, perhaps during the conclave, is immense.
American prelate urged hiring of alleged source of Vatileaks
Just as the Wikileaks document dump of 2010 was carefully designed to target political leaders on the CIA hit list, the so-called Vatileaks scandal of 2012 has destabilized the Vatican. Vatileaks involved the publication in Italian and other newspapers of a series of previously secret internal documents of the Roman Curia, allegedly providing evidence of massive bribery and corruption, as well as of cutthroat rivalry among the various factions and cliques of the Curia. These documents are said to have profoundly shocked Ratzinger, who should instead have recalled Paul VI’s warning that the devil was active inside the church. The Pope’s butler (maggiordomo), Paolo Gabriele, has been convicted by a Vatican tribunal of revealing these secrets.
Gabriele was hired on the strength of a recommendation from the American prelate James Harvey of Milwaukee, who from 1998 until last year served as the Prefect of the Papal Household. That recommendation alone should have led to Harvey’s ouster as a matter of simple ministerial responsibility. But Ratzinger once again showed his tragic weakness by rewarding Harvey with a promotion to cardinal, making him the dean of one of the main Roman basilicas. Ratzinger, it should be added, has always been surrounded by American churchmen of dubious loyalty to Rome.
One of the most lurid documents in the Vatileaks series is the so-called Mordkomplott or report on a supposed conspiracy to assassinate the Pope, which was published by the pseudo-left Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano on February 10, 2012. Here we read that in December 2011, Cardinal Paolo Romeo of Palermo had informed Chinese government officials that Benedict XVI would be dead within 12 months. Chinese officials surmised that an assassination plot was afoot. The document further alleged that, according to Cardinal Romeo, Ratzinger was already grooming Cardinal Scola of Milan to be his successor.
Franco sees Ratzinger as “crushed by the impossibility of reforming the institutions, with a further metaphor: a temptation to retreat that goes beyond the Vatican walls and symbolically involves Europe and the entire Western world. The resignation of Benedict XV, the ‘German pope,’ ends up appearing as the resignation of a continent and of a form of civilization which have entered a profound crisis….”
Perhaps Franco is joining in the big push by the pro-NATO media to blame everything on the entrenched and demonized cardinals of the Roman Curia, starting with the Cardinals Bertone and Sodano. Here we need to be skeptical. Some of Benedict XVI’s biggest headaches have come from the ceaseless Anglo-American media barrage of negative publicity, the Anglo-American gloating over Vatileaks, and the ceaseless Anglo-American financial warfare (internal subversion and outside attacks) against the Vatican financial institutions, which has been going on since the days of Bishop Marcinkus, Michele Sindona, and Roberto Calvi.
Massimo Franco reports that there is in the Vatican “the widespread feeling is that, in order to rebuild, the next pope will first of all have to deconstruct, if not destroy.” Such a general purge be all right for the anarchist Makhno, but it can hardly apply in this case.
Oligarchs disguised as reformers threaten the conclave
A valuable perspective comes from a distinguished conservative Catholic author living in Milan, who warns: “The crisis of the Church is extremely serious, and there is a danger that the conclave will make this evident in a scandalous way: there are Cardinals (somehow represented by the recently deceased Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan) who want ‘more collegiality,’ meaning the subordination of the monarchical role of the Pope under an oligarchy of Cardinals. This will be presented as ‘democratization,’ but it will be an oligarchical transformation: basically along the lines of what is happening in the European Union, where we have the domination of unelected oligarchies through figures like Draghi, Monti, and van Rompuy.” Could the Vatican survive under an anti-charismatic bureaucratic cipher like Van Rompuy?
Our Milan source continues: “The most reassuring hypothesis is that Ratzinger quit in such a way as to still be around to guide the nomination of the next pope. Either that, or that he resigned after having obtained a convergence of the cardinals concerning his successor. A name often mentioned is that of Angelo Scola, whom Ratzinger brought from Venice to be archbishop of the Milan archdiocese, politically the most powerful one. We will have to wait and see if the ‘progressive’ (i.e., oligarchical) rebels will accept calmly this or not. The followers of Carlo Maria Martini are still strong.” – Martini was the Jesuit Cardinal who acquired progressive cover by alluding to the possibility of women as priests in an interview with the New York Times in 2002.
Inherent problems of an emeritus pope
The papal resignation is a shock to 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. For six hundred years, they have been accustomed to seeing one Pope in the Vatican, and not two. Ratzinger reportedly wants to retire first to the summer palace at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, and then to a nunnery in a quiet corner of the gardens of Vatican City. Will he be photographed? Will he give interviews? Celestine V is said to have sought solitude to hide his shame after quitting. What if the next pope decides that he does not want Ratzinger anywhere near the Vatican? What if he tells the ex-pope to go back to Bavaria?
There is also the theological question of whether any resignation can be valid. Cardinal Dziwisc of Cracow in Poland, the former secretary of John Paul II, seemed to suggest that resignation is not appropriate. A Roman priest commented that a father cannot resign his role in the family simply because the children rebel against discipline. Once the Pope, always the Pope, is the argument of others. It is obvious that any group of malcontents or subversives might be tempted to seize on the figure of Ratzinger as the reference point for their agitation.
Over six centuries, many popes have grappled with terminal illness, and doubtless with despair. Ratzinger’s narrative seems to be that, since he lacked the courage to fire the most corrupt cardinals of the curia, the only alternative was to fire himself. Despite the chloroform being offered to the faithful by some commentators, this is no profile in courage.
The Roman popes claim to be the successors of St. Peter and thus the representatives of Christ on earth, but this claim has a hard time coexisting with papal resignations. Either the Pope is the choice of the Holy Spirit, or he is simply a bureaucratic administrator or executive who can quit or be forced out if things are not going well – like a French prime minister under the Fourth Republic, or an Italian premier it today. Gregory XII could justify his resignation with the need to put an end to the Great Schism. Ratzinger’s motivation is still not entirely clear.