The life and times of a controversial pope

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 00:00

Profile: Even in the manner and nature of his sensational decision to resign as Pope, Benedict XVI generates strongly contrasting views. There are those who argue that nothing quite so becomes the man as the way in which he has stepped down from the job, acknowledging his “incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”, as he stated yesterday.

For others, his resignation reads like a throwing-in of the towel that contrasts sharply with his predecessor, John Paul II, who remained at his post despite 10 years and more of bad health, in the process bearing poignant witness to the suffering of the ill.

For much of his public life, 85-year-old Benedict has generated such contrasting views. For some, his pontificate has been a reassuring, no frills moment in church history when the most traditional values of Catholic teaching were reinforced. For others, it has been a disaster writ large, a period when the church partially turned its back on the social teachings of Vatican Council II, paying too much attention to the “Liturgy and Lace” brigade, perhaps best represented by a traditionalist movement like the Society of St Pius X.

Early years

Even the early years of the future pope, who was born on Holy Saturday, 1927, in Traunstein, Bavaria, the third son of policeman Joseph Ratzinger Senior, ended up prompting bitter controversy. Critics have always argued that the future pope was a less than vigorous opponent of Nazism in a village which witnessed much anti-Semitic violence, deportation, displacement and death.

The same critics point to his having joined the Hitler Youth in 1941 as proof of his failure to contest Nazism. Benedict has always claimed that he had no choice, that joining the Hitler Youth had become compulsory for all German boys and that he was just one of millions to do so. Furthermore, supporters point out that his family suffered from the Nazi oppression, with one of his cousins, who suffered from Down syndrome, being arrested and sent to his death in a concentration camp.

Ordained a priest in 1951, the future pope spent little time at the “coalface” of church work, in the parish. A gifted academic, he taught at the universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen and Regensburg throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s before he was appointed archbishop of Munich in 1977.

That appointment lasted five years, until 1982, when he was called to Rome by John Paul II to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the one-time Holy Office. At the CDF Ratzinger became internationally known, proving himself a stout defender of orthodox Catholic teaching. In particular, he rejected the Latin American liberation theology teachings of Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez and former Franciscan Leonardo Boff so vehemently he earned himself the media nickname “God’s rottweiller”.

Throughout the 27-year-long pontificate of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger (he was named a cardinal by Paul VI in 1977) was a behind-the-scenes string puller, uncompromising on everything from ecumenism to sexual mores to liberation theology. If the pontificate of John Paul II was a distinctly traditional one, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of its main architects.

That “hardline” service earned him an unexpected elevation to the “top job” when a group of curia cardinals staged a virtual palace putsch to have him elected in 2005. During the 20 years or so that this correspondent followed Holy See affairs in Rome prior to Benedict’s election as pope in 2005, there was always plenty of talk about the likely successor to John Paul II.

Remarkably, until just four months before the April 2005 death of John Paul, the name of Cardinal Ratzinger hardly ever featured in the shortlist of the best informed Vatican insiders. He had done a good job at the CDF but was not pope material. He was too much of an academic, too disinterested in house politics, too interested in his writings. Such an unworldly figure would never do.

Yet, given the perception of some that in 2005 the church required a pair of safe hands to guide it through the transitionary period that would follow the momentous pontificate of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger turned out be just the man. “Wir brauchen den richtigen Mann”.

It remains to be seen if he was indeed the right man for the job. It has always seemed possible that this was an occasion when the Holy Spirit took a sabbatical. There was never any doubting Benedict’s sincerity, nor his pious intentions. There was always every reason to doubt his ability to organise even a wine-tasting session in Trastevere.

Stumbling pontificate

His pontificate stumbled from bloomer to bloomer, controversy to controversy, many of them seemingly avoidable, not ill- intentioned and based on political naivety.

There was his September 2006 speech in Regensburg which triggered Muslim protest by appearing to link Muhammad with violence. Then there was the 2007 appointment, followed by the swift fall from grace, of Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, who turned out to have had an ambiguous relationship with the Soviet-era secret police.

The list of “incidents” also includes the revival of the old Latin Mass, including a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews.

In the same theme was the 2009 lifting of the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including the Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson. Nor did his comments aboard the papal plane on his way to Cameroon in 2009 to the effect that condoms made the problem of Aids worse appear helpful.

There was even squabbling among the cardinals on Benedict’s watch, with the Austrian Christoph Schönborn of Vienna summoned to Rome to “clarify” apparently critical remarks made about Cardinal Angelo Sodano of Italy, the long-serving secretary of state under John Paul II. As if all that were not enough, he also managed to annoy a long-time friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with his 2011 decision to create new “ordinariates” to welcome traditionalist Anglican converts to Rome.

That something was wrong in the Vatican became clear last year when in the same week, the Vatican bank, IOR, dismissed its governor, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, and the Vatican gendarmes arrested Benedict’s own butler, Paolo Gabriele, on charges that he had stolen confidential documents from the papal apartment.

The documents removed by Gabriele had turned up in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s bestseller, His Holiness – The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, a book which suggested that in the absence of a determined helmsman, the Holy See was being buffeted all over the place by internal rivalries, jealousies and even corruption.

‘Zero tolerance’

At his Vatican trial last October, the butler Gabriele memorably suggested that Benedict was not as well informed as he should be and that he was easily manipulated by those around him, with reference to his powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Supporters of Benedict will argue that his pontificate was marked by a “zero tolerance” stand on clerical sex abuse, illustrated by his letter to the Irish faithful in 2010. Critics spent most of yesterday stressing just how little he achieved in the fight against clerical sex abuse, saying his pontificate had seen little transparency, exposition of child-molesting clerics and punishment of wrongdoers, or co-operation with the law.

For some, Benedict will always seem to have been the personification of a misogynist church that was backward on issues such as women priests, homosexuality and clerical celibacy. For others, he will be seen as a modest, frail and old intellectual full of the best intentions. Both factions would probably agree that he failed to realise many of those best intentions.

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