Lots of people have been treating the Pope’s announcement that he’s leaving the office at the end of the month as though there were no warning signs, but if you’ve kept your eyes open and knew what to look for, that’s simply not the case. I don’t buy for a second that he’s leaving over health concerns. Yes, he’s old, but no more so than many other recent popes, he falls in at the fifth oldest pope currently. He’s not in particularly bad health so far as we know, although that information could be withheld from the public. His predecessor, after all, not only suffered a gunshot wound, he had a benign intestinal tumor removed in 1992, fell twice in 1993 and 1994, resulting in a dislocated shoulder and broken femur, had an appendectomy in 1996 and was diagnosed in 2001 with Parkinson’s Disease, yet he never left the Papacy. By comparison, Benedict, who is just over a year older than Pope John Paul II at his death, suffered a mild stroke in 2005 and broke his wrist in 2009. It was revealed that he had a pacemaker implanted prior to his election as Pope. It seems to me, just by that data, that his health isn’t all that bad for a man of his age.
So what evidence do we have that maybe, this is about something else?
It was only last year that Luigi Bettazzi, the retired bishop of Ivrea, who has known Benedict for nearly 50 years, suggested quietly that he might step down quietly instead of spending the rest of his days in the papacy. If we remember, before being elected, Cardinal Ratzinger was already looking forward to a quiet retirement, he had said early on that he would prefer his papacy be short. However, the Vatican had made it clear that such desires were unrealistic, that he really had no choice to step down early, in fact, the past Pope to step down from his duties was Pope Gregory XII in 1415, who stepped down to put an end to the Great Western Schism. Seven others before him had abdicated, including Pope Gregory VI, who left because he had been revealed to have purchased the Papacy from his predecessor, Benedict IX, and left in disgrace. In fact, if you look through the Catholic records, the current Pope is the first and only to have stepped down from his position without being forced, through scandal or military or political challenge. The closest one had gotten, Celestine V, stepped down in a desire to return to his hermitage, but was imprisoned by his successor. It is interesting to note that twice in the past 8 years, Benedict has visited the bones of St. Celestine, seemingly hoping for some sort of spiritual permission from the Pope who invented the rule that Popes could step down willingly.
But beyond those signs, let’s be honest, this papacy has been embattled since day one. He was a controvertial figure to begin with, coming after a much-beloved progressive pontiff who wanted to take the church from the 13th century, at least to the 18th, but when Benedict came in, he immediately started reversing many of the advancements brought in by John Paul II, putting the Catholic Church firmly in the middle ages. Where this may have thrilled some of the more fundamentalist Catholics, most modern, especially American Catholics, were disgusted. That’s why a huge number of American Catholics have started to largely ignore anything coming out of the Vatican, the Pope doesn’t live in the same century as modern humans do.
Benedict had also been largely responsible, in his pre-Pope days, as Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for setting the tone for the prosecution of the Catholic sex scandals. You have to remember, this is the office that, back in the middle ages, was responsible for the Inquisition. Ratzinger was personally responsible for concocting many of the confusing and bewildering rules within the Catholic church for taking care of these and other criminal claims. Bishops were sending off their files on abuse cases to the Congregations for the Clergy, for Bishops, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and for the Evangelization of Peoples — plus the Vatican’s Secretariat of State; its appeals court, the Apostolic Signatura; and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. “There was confusion everywhere,” said Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson of Adelaide, Australia.
In 2001, then-Pope John Paul II personally named the CDF responsible for investigating all reported cases of priest sex abuse. Well, not really, the CDF had been de facto responsible for such things since 1922, but nothing much had ever been done. The Vatican only took this extraordinary step after being flooded by complaints and concerns from bishops in English-speaking nations demanded action and convened a secret meeting in 2000. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, an outspoken bishop from Sydney, Australia, attended the meeting and says that despite numerous warnings, the Vatican in general and Ratzinger in particular, were slow to respond to their concerns. “Why did the Vatican end up so far behind the bishops out on the front line, who with all their faults, did change — they did develop,” he said. “Why was the Vatican so many years behind?”
It became clear that Ratzinger could no longer claim ignorance, he was part of the institutionalized culture of non-responsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction that has marked the church over the years. He took no action whatsoever in his role as Cardinal-Prefect and when he became Pope, he largely ignored the problem, pretending, like his predecessor, that such claims were just attacks against the church by it’s enemies. Benedict met with victims of priest sex abuse three times and, after a huge amount of pressure, opened a belated investigation into the ministry of Father Marcial Maciel and his Legionaries of Christ organization, eventually leading to Maciel’s removal from the priesthood. Earlier in the month, the courts ordered a release of the records from the Maciel case and, like in the Los Angeles Archdiocese case, all paperwork related to priest sex abuse in the Legionaries of Christ group.
We can lay a lot of this at the feet of Ratzinger’s positions, both as a Cardinal and as the Pope. Had he declared back in 1983 that all cases of priestly sex abuse were to be immediately turned over to the proper authorities and any priest that was accused of inappropriate contact with children would immediately be removed from their priestly duties and forbidden to have any contact with children until the case was settled, then the church would never be in the mess it is today. To date, there are 8 American Catholic Diocese that have declared bankruptcy over payouts to sex abuse victims. Nearly two billion dollars has been spent by the church, more than $615 million in 2007 alone. Yet the church has never made it’s policies on sex abuse transparent, nor made an open order to turn over all sex-abusing priests immediately to the police. The Church continues to hemorrhage money.
Yet it’s not only money they’re losing, the church is losing members at an astounding rate. In 2010, the Church in America had fewer members than Islam, and Islam makes up a tiny percentage of the nation’s religious. In Europe it’s worse, nations that have historically been primarily Roman Catholic are now reporting a drop in Mass attendance to less than 50%. I simply cannot see it as a coincidence that the same weekend that Pope Benedict announced his resignation, the Vatican was hosting a conference aimed at luring young people back to the Church. The Roman Catholic Church is imploding from within and a lot of that failure has come under the short watch of Pope Benedict. As much as I can understand that Benedict didn’t want to be Pope and didn’t want to remain Pope for long, I’m pretty sure there’s pressure from within for him to move along because his policies and his actions are demonstrably harming the business-side of the Church. In a lot of places, the Catholic Church is going out of business.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s a good thing, but it was only a matter of time until Benedict either got tossed out on his ass, stepped down to avoid the former, or went out feet-first, natural causes or otherwise. There’s too much money and power involved here, too many people who want to cling to the former glory of the Church, to let this doddering old fool hang around and mess things up for everyone.
It was just a matter of time.