What kind of pope? Benedict XVI and beyond

By Harry Hagopian
20 Feb 2013

Now to all the faithful weepers and disarrayed flocks out there, feeling lost because their majestic 'shepherd' has quit his job: take a minute to examine with us some of the achievements of your departing Pope. Benedict XVI declined to punish bishops who failed to remove abusive priests, and he himself came under scrutiny for his oversight of an abusive priest when he was serving as bishop of Munich in the early 1980s. He has repeatedly denounced same-sex relationships and promoted homophobia and intolerance. Not to be overlooked in his prestigious curriculum is his firm opposition to the ordination of women: In 2010, the Vatican issued new rules that simultaneously labelled abusing children and ordaining women as “grave crimes” against the church. I could go on and on.

Wow! Or should I say - somewhat appropriately in this case - holy smoke!

This paragraph is an excerpt from a blog entitled ‘The boss and the delivery boy’, written by third-wave feminist Joumana Haddad. It was posted on 12 February 2013 in The J.Spot - a blog about women’s rights, human dignity, secularism and sexual freedom in the Arab world that appears on the NOW Lebanon website. Her combustible words, and the challenge she was clearly incorporating into those words, spurred me to pause for a few minutes and assess the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI now that his failing health has convinced him to step down ‘in full freedom’ (according to Canon law) from the Petrine throne.

So let me gauge how much my thoughts would tally with Joumana Haddad’s heartfelt, if brash, comments.

I think we could agree that this resignation (I prefer to describe it as retirement personally) took almost everyone by surprise. We also could agree that this unexpected move is rare in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, as I was gearing myself up to those inevitable interviews, I was constantly reminded that no other pope had resigned for thirteen centuries and that the most famous abdication was that of Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine mediaeval hermit who resigned in 1294 after only few months once he realised that he was in fact called to serve his church through prayer and penance rather than by getting entangled in the cloak-and-dagger politics and endless public ceremonies of the papacy. Mind you, there have also been other popes who ‘resigned’ albeit under duress - Gregory XII comes to mind in 1415 - and not all of them for the right reasons either. In fact, Benedict XVI had lauded in 2010 Celestine V’s capacity for inner silence and “vivid experience of the beauty of creation.” So it was perhaps a less than subtle hint of the moment when he too would resign and, Celestine-like, face the uncertain verdict of history and the likelihood to be misunderstood in his words or deeds.

To this date, I still remember vividly how Benedict XVI imported into his pontificate the labels of ‘a panzer cardinal’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler’ due to his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican in Rome. He had been a gatekeeper of doctrinal purity and this is perhaps one of the reasons why he and the late John Paul II got on so well together. They both shared a sense of conservatism that is wedded to tradition but they performed their respective ministries in different ways. John Paul II was a pope who used his charisma to become a missionary for the Roman Church whilst the more conservative cardinal - later also pope - deployed his intellect and knowledge of history to keep everybody on the straight and narrow. In some sense, both viewed the Church as a fortress with its face against the secular world.

However, this was not always the case since Joseph Ratzinger had also been quite a progressive and engaging mind in the early days of his ordination. After all, his tome Theological Highlights of Vatican II stands in sharp contrast to his later conservatism. There was a time when the young priest, later bishop and professor at various German universities, railed against religious sycophants who toadied up to power. However, his pivotal - and in a sense - reverse metanoia happened, I suspect, during the student riots of the 1960’s in the USA and Europe when Ratzinger forsook his role as a radical theologian and turned into a fierce protector of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. His reaction to what he perceived suddenly as the relativist and arbitrary excesses of the faithful led him to divert from his initial trajectory and choose a new direction.

While see-sawing between models of conservatism versus modernity over two decades, I would also agree with Carol Zaleski and other commentators that Benedict XVI was not an implacable arch-foe of the Second Vatican Council as some people would understand him. Rather, Benedict XVI is viewed by insiders as a profound religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition whereby the longing for truth is innate and universal and the various disciplines of philosophy, theology and the natural sciences all have as their ultimate aim a personal union with truth. With his distinctly non-fundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis, his sophisticated handling of recent trends in biblical criticism (most notably his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life), along with his role in the creation of the modern Catholic catechism and writings on faith, reason and love (most wondrously his first - and to my mind refreshing - encyclical Deus caritas Est or God Is Love), Pope Benedict helped open a new albeit still hesitant era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.

This man - gentle, diffident, defensive or insular at different times in private or in public - did not necessarily fail in his ministry as pope by nurturing a distinctly anti-reform and anti-modern paradigm of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, his most difficult moments consisted of the numerous gaffes he committed during his papacy that made me wonder at times whether he was truly suited for this highest office or whether he should have remained a thinker, writer and advisor for the Church without belabouring himself with the political and administrative tasks that appeared at times beyond his grasp.

I shared this thought with a colleague of mine last week when I told her that Pope Benedict XVI reminds me in some way of the late Catholicos Karekin I of the Armenian Orthodox Church - who, incidentally, was a friend of the late John-Paul II. I got to know Karekin I a fair bit when I was Assistant General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches and he was one of our four co-presidents. Not unlike Benedict XVI, this man also had a sharp intellect and was a remarkable writer and orator with a spark in him that could infuse faith in those least pre-disposed to accept him let alone light up a room with the twinkle that often carolled in his eyes. Karekin I also assumed the highest position within the Armenian Orthodox Church at Holy Etchmiadzin and in 1999 died a rather weary and unfulfilled man - sadder and less fulfilled than Benedict XVI.

But coming back to Benedict XVI, and to Joumana Hadadd’s excerpt which admittedly reflects the opinion of many men and women, I would acquiesce that he committed a number of errors of judgment during his papacy although I must add in all fairness that while his errors have been amply recorded, rehearsed and rehashed, far less attention has been given to his efforts to make amends. Amongst those initial errors was his speech on faith and reason in 2006 at Universität Regensburg where his remarks about a 14th-century Byzantine emperor had the Muslim world up in arms. Moreover, his critique of New Age versions of Buddhism as narcissistic was poorly phrased and instantly misunderstood, too. Quite grossly negligent was his rehabilitation of Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of Pius X who was a holocaust denier and it resulted in a gravely tense moment with the leaders of the Jewish faith. However, I would add - not as justification but rather explanation - that those errors in judgment also helped open up further avenues for dialogue with the adherents of those faiths.

I do not wish to go over the lack of financial transparency and accountability at the Vatican Bank as well as the devastating - and penal - leaks perpetrated by his butler. However, I cannot avoid focusing on the abominable paedophilia and child abuse cases that were ostensibly swept under the carpet. The stories we hear about the lingering horror of predatory priests are truly dreadful and the abuse of authority and confidence perpetrated by some Catholic priests is both repugnant and reprehensible. Like most people, I too ignore the ferreted details of those cases but I am aware that Benedict XVI was appalled by such criminal behaviour and referred to it as ‘filth’ in his own discourses. I would also add that he cannot be expected to shoulder the blame alone but that the Vatican is collectively accountable for those abuses since it is also the responsibility of his predecessor John-Paul II as well as of the Curia of the Vatican who are at times even more controlling, let alone forbidding than civil servants in relation to governments. The Church should consider those abuses as a long-term issue rather than deal with them piecemeal when stories emerge and they require apology coupled with penance and the force of law.

Moreover, let me add that the Roman Catholic Church - incidentally not unlike the Orthodox or Anglican Churches - faces serious problems regarding the ordination of women in the church, let alone in its relations with gay people in society. I suppose one could label it as misogyny or homophobia but I am not really interested in sensationalist tags. Rather, what worries me is the impact such issues are having on churchgoers and I am not surprised that Churches are collectively facing dwindling numbers and muffled voices in the Western hemisphere compared to the vigour and increasing numbers that are conversely felt - powerfully albeit more conservatively too - in different parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

So having skimmed over the last seven years of the Benedict papacy, let me now project to the future. After all, la totopapa, or the bookmakers’ lottery on the future choices of pope, is already in full swing in Italy as much as across the world.

A strong initial statement: when Benedict XVI announced his retirement, I believe that he was evincing both humility and courage in separating the office from the person. This is not only a personal achievement that we can either admire or reprove, but one that might set some precedent for the future of the papacy. Retiring on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, the World Day of the Sick, as well as on the threshold of Lent was his Nunc dimittis or “I will diminish,” as his final summons to a weary church to look beyond politics and the calculus of power and to recover its real sources of renewal.

This weariness with the church is made manifest in a number of statements the Pope made ever since his ‘resignation’. But such weariness with the church goes back centuries as we should not forget that the Vatican has witnessed many awful popes the likes of Steven VI, Benedict IX or Leo X who mixed the spiritual with the temporal in the most unlawful, irreligious and power-hungry ways. During those mediaeval times, popes were not interested in a moral monarchy alone but rather in a political one that reigned supreme over Christendom. The Crusades - or holy wars as they were described then between 1095 and 1291 - are only one bitter example of appropriations and injustices that were exercised with impunity in the name of the successors to St Peter. So perhaps those who stringently criticise this papacy lack some compassion and perspective.

Let me round off my own thoughts with a few personal but faith-centred observations.

• Who will be the next pope? The deciding factor will be the pre-vote discussions and side-meetings of the cardinals in the college. They are the ones who will ultimately elect the new pope as they discuss the future direction and orientations of the Roman Catholic Church. The cardinals could go for someone from Africa (Nigeria), Latin America (Brazil or Mexico) or Asia (Philippines) if they want to choose someone from a developing continent. Or perhaps they would choose an English speaker from Canada or even the USA. But they could also choose an Italian if they decide that the Vatican needs a robust shakeup and in this case I would suspect that an Italian who is much more closely familiar with the workings of the Vatican would aspire more confidence to perform a decent job.

• But the choice that some people are discussing is not only one of nationality or geography but also one of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. I would personally argue that the College of Cardinals - with 67 of the current ‘princes of the Church’ having been appointed by Benedict XVI - favours quite substantively a successor who represents the retiring pope’s vision. Therefore, unless there is a big surprise (and that is not excluded at all in my opinion), I would still suggest that the preponderance for the new occupant would be from a traditionalist group.

• Interestingly enough, and whilst names and continents are being mentioned helter-skelter, very little attention is given to the Catholic Churches in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. In fact, some people are having an active time on their Facebook pages as they postulate the name of the Lebanon-based Maronite patriarch as the next choice. This is of course quite unlikely but it draws our attention to the fact that there is a vibrant Christian - and Catholic - witness in this biblical region that matters - or should matter - to the Universal Church.

• Without belabouring the point too much, let me also remind my readers that many new church leaders were elected in the MENA region under the watch of Benedict XVI - such as in Lebanon, the Holy Land, Iraq and Damascus. Besides, a Synod for the Catholic Churches of the region was held under the pope’s auspices in Rome in 2010 and the Apostolic Exhortation subsequent to this Synod in Lebanon in 2012 providing a roadmap for the future marked an important kairos for this community of believers at a time of uprisings, uncertainty and trepidation for the region.

• One should not forget the noticeable ecumenical strides made by Benedict XVI with the Orthodox Churches. In a sense, I would argue that this is perhaps the most visible form of coming together between what John Paul II once described as the two lungs of Christianity. The Ravenna Document of 2007 is in fact one real breakthrough in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue since it pushed the level of discussions from the local or regional to the universal one.

• In a recent documentary entitled In Search of Benedict XVI that was presented by Edward Stourton and produced by Amanda Hancox for BBC Radio 4, the final thought left with listeners was whether the ‘resignation’ of Benedict XVI would alter the diagnostics of the Vatican and introduce new dynamics or precedents for the future choices made by the cardinals. I would submit that this is not necessarily the case since I am not sure that we will now start witnessing many popes stepping down due to failing health. After all, does John-Paul II not spring to mind?

Let me conclude by going back to Joumana Haddad and respectfully offer one statement and two comments. I happen to be a believer and I struggle hard - and often fail miserably - to take my faith seriously. However, this does not mean I disagree with her expression about the many failings, contradictions and even idiosyncrasies of the churches. In fact, I would add that many of the traditions followed by many churches today have less to do with Jesus Christ or even biblical teachings and much more with man-made dogmas and moral commands. It pains me that churches remain at times so much out of touch. However, what is good for the goose is also good for the gander in the sense that many other Christians would seriously disagree with Haddad’s assumptions. Surely, they too are entitled the courtesy of being heard or considered for their beliefs?

And finally, being provocative or aggressive is not always the optimal way of conveying one’s viewpoint or winning people over to one’s arguments, no matter how justifiable, sensible or timely. I have learnt this the hard way in my legal career in the courts of law and more recently in my political and ecumenical work. The truth might be absolute, but our truth remains subjective. So while I tend to see the merit in some of her arguments, I would see more if they were presented graciously.

In the final analysis, and whether Joumana, I or anyone else voices their opinions above the parapets, the fact remains that come Easter 2013, 1.3 billion Catholics - firm believers, lapsed ones or disinterested men and women - will have witnessed the whitish smoke coming out of that Vatican chimney and then heard the immortal Latin peroration Habemus Papam!

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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