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Ultra-Catholics 1, Pope 0

Throughout his mandate the orthodox German cardinal has cut a solitary figure

Joseph Ratzinger's papacy will be remembered for its attempts - tardy but sincere - to cleanse the image of the Curia and the Church, which has been befouled by thousands of cases of child abuse in Catholic institutions in many countries, and their systematic concealment by the hierarchy during the reign of his predecessor, John Paul II. True, Ratzinger was the theological right hand of Wojtyla, but while the old pope was alive the order was to conceal and protect the black sheep, particularly the leader of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, chief advisor to Wojtyla and immune to all condemnation in spite of the timid objections of Ratzinger, who could only put things in order once he was elected to the papacy.

Throughout his mandate the orthodox German cardinal has been a solitary pope: intellectual, weak, repentant of the sins, the filth, the crimes (he used these last two words for the first time) of the Church; and he has lived surrounded by wolves avid of wealth, power and immunity. The Curia forged in the days of Wojtyla was a cesspool into which the worst elements of each diocese drained -- tax evaders, lawyers specializing in pedophile cases, Latin American counter-revolutionaries and fundamentalists of the worst type. This Curia always frowned on Ratzinger's attempts at a thorough cleanup; while the most up-and-coming, profitable movements, such as the Legionaries, Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, were careful to torpedo any step toward regeneration.

The eternal Vatican, that thick gelatin composed of cardinals and laymen who confound the interests of Italy and the Vatican, and run a web of businesses in both states while they decide important matters, have exerted themselves these seven years to maintain their privileges and to prevent, at the same time, the renovation of the Curia and the modernization of Italy. This is especially true of two sectors, finance and information, which are the centers of gravity of the interests controlled by Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, the ultra-Catholic fundamentalist movements that prospered most -- together with the Legionaries -- during the long papacy of Wojtyla.

The wolves have won the day; but his resignation reveals Ratzinger as a defeated but worthy shepherd

Shady rackets and recurrent scandals have been the rule rather than the exception, and offhand a number come to mind, which show how the Vatican's shadow power -- the iron ally of Silvio Berlusconi and his right hand Gianni Letta -- has repeatedly defied the pope's authority and calls to honesty. The forged paper that accused Dino Boffo, editor of the episcopal paper Avvenire, of homosexual abuses, to force his resignation; the maneuverings that culminated in the sudden dismissal of the president of the Vatican bank; the rise of Angelo Scola, the only cardinal of Communion and Liberation, to the archbishopric of Milan, to replace the progressive Tettamanzi and take positions for Ratzinger's succession; the never-clarified case of the papal butler, scapegoat of a more than probable system of espionage on the pope -- these are only a few examples of this communion of interest between Italian politics and the Vatican Curia.

The papacy of Ratzinger has, in this sense, been a resounding failure. For all the criticism of his doctrinal rigidity, his intellectual honesty is unquestionable; but in the end the concrete results he has obtained seem modest. The wolves have won the day; but his resignation -- no doubt carefully considered so as not to suffer a prolonged agony with the media at the gate, such as that experienced by the late Wojtyla -- reveals Ratzinger as a defeated but worthy shepherd who, tired of fighting, withdraws into a monastery before his bones are picked by the vultures.

That this has been the first case in more than 700 years says much about the toxicity of the cesspool in which he has been living. The fact that it has come as a surprise, with no previous leaks, says everything about his solitude.

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