Passing on Peter's staff
Arguably, in the very act of resigning, in recognising the limitations of age on leadership as the political and corporate worlds have long done, Pope Benedict XVI stamps the name of moderniser on his legacy. The resignation also hints at a subtle transition in how he sees the job in the 21st century – now more manager, and less iconic inspiration leading by example, like John Paul II, though both roles remain inherent to the job.
But “moderniser” is not a hat Benedict will wear comfortably. A charming, shy and kindly bookworm of inspiring piety, he nevertheless shares – some would argue, goes beyond – his deeply conservative predecessor’s views, particularly the conviction that the church’s salvation lies primarily in the reaffirmation of core values and biblical certainties. He led a retreat from what he saw as the dangerous experimentation of Vatican II – as he said in his 1996 book Salt of the Earth, “a smaller but purer church may be necessary”. He made no concessions on issues such as liberation theology, homosexuality, celibacy, women priests . . . or to the West’s creeping secularism and associated philosophical relativism against which some of his most effective polemics inveighed. The enforcement of orthodoxy on the priesthood has been reinforced.
Sometimes his over-robust rearticulation of such “truths” led him into what many saw as unnecessary and ill-judged political controversy – the suggestion, corrected later, that Islam’s spread was associated with violence; the contention that condoms made the Aids crisis in Africa worse; his branding of other Christian denominations as deficient, not quite real churches; his decision to allow a wider use of the old-style Latin Mass and missal, including a prayer for the conversion of the Jews . . . (In 2011 he won praise by exonerating Jews of the responsibility for Christ’s death.)
Benedict represents in his person the contradictions and evolution of the church itself on the crisis that has convulsed it most in recent years, child abuse. There were concerns that as a bishop he may have covered up the activities of priests in his diocese. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for dealing with abuse cases, he presided over many years of silence but was among the first church leaders to begin to recognise the damage being done not only to children but the church. As pope he apologised to victims and pledged root-and-branch reform but resolutely defended the Vatican’s “sovereign immunity” to protect it from what he insisted was misconduct confined to national churches. The breach between Rome and Ireland, highlighted in Enda Kenny’s 2011 speech, was very much the product of that stance.
Now, as Benedict gets his deserved rest, the church gets its chance to decide which way it will face. Into the future, or back to the past?