We have a pope! Or, possibly, two.
Pope Benedict VI announced his resignation on Monday 11 February. This was surprising, both in itself and in its implications.
Days later, in its issue for the 16th, The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly (www.thetablet.co.uk), devoted close on thirty of its forty-eight pages to the event.
The Tablet’s response was not merely swift. It was forthright and clear on both the event and its implications.
The important truth — the Pope can resiog
The leading article noted the ‘important but almost forgotten truth: that a pope could resign’. That forgetfulness arose from a mistaken supposition that the papacy had sacramental status.
Benedict, however, knew better. He also knew that his awareness of his inability to discharge the burdens of the office, compelled him, after painful soul searching, to make way for someone who could.
His decision would make a difference in how the office was perceived, The Tablet suggested, to the extent of opening up the possibility of a fixed retirement age being adopted.
It also prompted thoughts of the possibility of collegiality in church government, mooted at the 2nd Vatican Council in the 60s but since forgotten.
Benedict was praised for his spiritual and intellectual legacy, his devastating critique of the economic theories and business practices which led to global financial crisis, and his deep conviction that the Catholic faith, centred on Jesus Christ, was ‘essential to the success of the whole human enterprise’.
The contributors to the paper’s detailed discussion of the situation were agreed that the Vatican’s slow and misconceived response to clerical sexual abuse had to be laid at the door of Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II.
Benedict himself might salute the editorial’s statement that ‘the institution which governs the Catholic Church does seem to have become seriously unfit for purpose’.
John Paul had allowed the growth of cliques and factions and ‘relied too much on charisma and not enough on management skills.’ He seemed to imagine himself as ‘parish priest to the whole world, and a Polish parish priest at that’.
Task of reform too much
Benedict’s abdication indicated that ‘the task of reform had become too immense… for one of his declining energy’.
Benedict himself had been a party to this during his time in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (until 1908 known as the Inquisition).
Writing very much as an English Catholic, Longley expressed a number of reservations about Benedict’s attitudes before and after he took office.
‘English Catholics’, he wrote, ‘are the heirs of John Henry Newman’ as well as John Wilkes and Edmund Burke, John Locke, John Milton and a host of others who spoke out for freedom.
Benedict was ‘our ultimate bogeyman’.
It followed that, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Benedict was ‘our ultimate bogeyman’.
Although, during his very successful visit to Britain in 2010, he spoke of the English love of freedom, and the value they placed on freedom of speech and political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, he did so ‘without apparently internalizing them as virtues relevant to the Church…. The tired old machinery of doctrinal discipline still grinds on, and nobody in charge counts the cost’.
John Paul never caught up with Burke’s aphorism that ‘freedom is the best antidote to anarchy.
Freedom needed for exploring ideas
While in Britain , he called for faith and reason to engage in mutual analysis and debate. But, Longely argued, you cannot explore ideas to see wherever they might lead if one side in the dialogue is gagged.
The best answer to a bad idea is a better idea. ‘Benedict may well have realized that the Church needed freedom to think and breathe. But he retreated from the risks involved.’
Eamon Duffy, author the superb Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, notes that ‘Benedict’s visit to Britain… was the sort of personal triumph no one would have predicted for this shy and austerely cerebral professor’.
He points out, apropos various popes, that the doctrine of Papal infallibility has been (mistakenly) understood as a personal rather than official quality, giving the Pope unique access to the mind of God.’
Different popes have reacted to the idea in different ways. Benedict’s predecessor and mentor John Paul II did not inhabit the Papacy… ‘as the chief executive of the Catholic Church’ but as ‘a living icon of Christ-like suffering’.
The ‘heroic endurance and religious grandeur of his last days’ made any suggestion that he ‘ought perhaps to have resigned long since seem mean-spirited and small-minded. But if decency silenced it, the question did not go away…’
Duffy concludes that Benedict’s ‘courageous, humble and imaginative decision to lay down the fisherman’s ring… entitles him to the Church’s gratitude.
It is no disparagement of Joseph Ratzinger’s many gifts to say that nothing in his papacy is likely to become him so well as the manner of his leaving it.’
The Tablet also printed its list of the ten most likely candidates to succeed Benedict. The name of the winner, in the 5th ballot, on the evening of day three of the conclave, the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglia was not among them.
Finally, on a disgracefully frivolous note, as reported by The Tablet, the bookmakers of Britain ran books on who would succeed to the throne of St Peter. One offered 666/1 on the noisy atheist Richard Dawkins. (For those of you who have forgotten, in the Book of Revelation, ‘666’ is the mark of the beast.)
As I write, the world has learnt that, when he was twelve, the boy who is now Pope Francis I proposed marriage to a girl in Buenos Aires.
His note, pressed into her hand as they passed in the street, told her that if she should refuse him, he would become a priest. She takes the view that he is better off for her refusal.