Innovation and renunciation

Benedict XVI, who began under the banner of conservatism, met stiff resistance to change

Benedict XVI’s resignation from the pontificate is an innovative step in the history of the Vatican. None of the more than 250 popes in history have renounced the office as voluntarily and freely as Ratzinger. Nor have any of them retired with a communiqué so charged with dignity and truth, ending a papacy of short duration — of transition, he once said — yet intense, turbulent and, in a way, innovative: due to the need to address one of the worst scandals to blemish the modern Catholic Church: that of pedophilia.

Ratzinger came to the papacy with clear conservative credentials. He was prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Inquisition) for more than two decades, and rejected the innovations of the Vatican Council II. As successor to John Paul II he was prompt to proclaim the non-negotiable character of the family, the indissolubility of marriage, the celibacy of the priesthood, the rejection of abortion, divorce and homosexual marriage. He has criticized Islam, restored the Latin missal liturgy, lifted the excommunication that weighed upon the followers of Lefebvre (the French Catholic extreme right), and spoke emphatically against the use of condoms in his visit to Africa, the continent hardest hit by AIDS.

But Ratzinger is a theologian, an intellectual who does not easily admit of simple labels. Coming from an Episcopal Conference, the German one, which clearly distinguishes between temporal and religious power, he has taken stands that bother more radical sectors. His first visit to Spain dashed cold water on the hopes of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, which wanted to use it to attack the Zapatero government’s gay marriage bill. Later the episcopal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls was abruptly dismissed.

 Without a doubt it is the scandal of pedophilia among priests and hierarchs that has most marked his papacy, leading him to make decisions unexpected by the ultra-conservatives. Ascending the papal throne a year after the first scandal broke in the US, further time bombs went on bursting throughout his reign, after decades of abuses systematically concealed by the Church hierarchy. Against those who pressed for stonewall silence, Benedict XVI broke with his predecessor’s concealment policy, publicly begged forgiveness and, in a visit to Malta, promised that the guilty would be turned over to secular justice.

This was a U-turn in line with his intellectual and doctrinal rigor, and no doubt bitterly resented in the sclerotic institution of the Church. Herein may lie part of the reason for his growing isolation in the Vatican, which seems an oddity of history, as is his resignation (delivered in Latin) and his planned retirement to a convent. It is an example of the innovative power sometimes inherent in strict orthodoxy and the return to principles. His premature departure is itself a sign of admonition to a senile curia.

As he himself remarks in his farewell — a small breath of modernity in a space full of stuffy air — it is to be hoped that the cardinals will be wise in their choice of a new pontiff. At stake in this choice is the future of a Church deeply split, and now in the hands of the most rigid conservatism.