Talking Politics

The politics of Pope Benedict

A man who reintroduces red papal shoes sends a mixed message. On the one hand, he is clearly fond of tradition. On the other, he must like a bit of glamour. The papal shoes were so fashionable the Vatican had to deny they were from Prada. Anyone wanting a pair would struggle. They came from the Pope's personal shoe-maker.

If progressives thought the Pontiff's penchant for eye-grabbing fashion was a sign of good things to come, they were very much mistaken. The shoes came with the return of Latin Mass and a reduction in marriage annulments. They were part of a fierce theme in Pope Benedict XVI's papacy: the rejection of change. 'Semper eadem' – always the same.

Pope Benedict, formerly Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, was a conservative candidate for a Vatican hoping to find a stop-gap amid increasingly vocal demands for change. Even when he was made Pope, there were worries about his age, not least from the man himself, who had hoped to retire following a hemorrhagic stroke in the early nineties. The Pope was never expecting to be in the job for long and neither he nor the Vatican intended for him to make any significant changes.

Anyone with knowledge of his CV would have seen the signs. In 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he was prefect, issued a letter to all bishops calling homosexuality "an intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder". In 2008, three years after becoming Pope he gave an end of year message saying the distinction between men and women was "set down by creation" and should "be respected". Deviating from gender roles was "a violation of the natural order". Heterosexual marriage had to be defended from "every possible misrepresentation of their true nature", he said last year.

No-one had really expected any movement on the gay issue, but there were hopes for a more moderate stance on condoms, not least because so many Catholics themselves had stopped heeding official advice. In 2005, the Pope listed the ways to combat Aids. They included chastity and fidelity in marriage, but not safe sex.

There are those who saw the Pope as a one-dimensional conservative, but his relentless focus on the plight of refugees suggests a more nuanced figure. He used a 2006 press conference to demand the ratification of international conventions and policies that defend all migrants, including refugees and internally displaced people and pursued the topic doggedly afterwards.

A 2010 trip to England saw the Pope enjoy the rare honour of addressing both Houses of Parliament. That speech was relatively harmless, but an earlier event in Scotland saw him weigh in with a thinly-veiled attack on modern British culture. "Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live," he said. "As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny."

The association of secularism with Nazism was particularly difficult for many to take, particularly from a Pope who had been in the Hitler Youth.

Pope Benedict's Nazi youth had been a difficult tag for him to shake off, despite the repeated assurance that he had had precious little choice about it, given that he grew up in Nazi Germany. He had even seen his own cousin taken away and murdered for having Down syndrome under the Nazi eugenics programme.

Ratzinger was conscripted into the Hitler Youth just after his 14th birthday in 1941. Two years later he was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps and then trained in the infantry. But he deserted at the end of the war before being locked up as a prisoner of war. He was released after just a few months and re-entered the seminary.
Pope Benedict's legacy, beyond the extraordinary rarity of his decision to resign, will undoubtedly depend on how effectively he is seen to have moved the Church on from the child sex scandals which have so damaged its reputation in recent years.

The score card is mixed. For the defence: supporters say Pope Benedict approached the problem with a crusading zeal not shown by his predecessor. Even before he became Pope, he convinced John Paul II to make the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsible for investigating scandals, rather than rely on individual dioceses to do the job. He included internet offences against children in canon law, waved the statute of limitations on a case-by-case basis and introduced fast-track dismissals for those found guilty. His letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland in 2010 expressed sorrow at what had happened and promised changes in the way such cases were dealt with.

For the prosecution: Pope Benedict's conversion to tough investigation was a relatively recent development. During the 1990s, when reports of child abuse on a mass scale began, he and Pope John Paul II effectively dismissed them, safe in the knowledge that the priesthood grants men special graces, such as aversion to sinful behaviour. Even his letter to Ireland, years later, seemed to associate the events with the advance of secularism, as if the priests were subject to dark forces beyond their control.

A New York Times report recently found Ratzinger guilty of ignoring explicate warnings about a priest in Wisconsin who was accused of abusing up to 200 deaf children over decades. Ratzinger, according to the report, cancelled a secret trial after the priest appealed to him personally.

When Pope Benedict did take action on the increasingly horrific scandal taking place in Ireland, he did so in a manner which prioritised spiritual solutions rather than practical ones. One of his first moves, for instance, was to insist the Eucharistic wafer be exposed for adoration in churches across the country.

This was in keeping with the most important political fact about the Pope. In 1968, during year of revolution, a gang of students caused an upset in Tübingen University, where Ratzinger was teaching. It left a lasting impression on the future Pope, who retreated quickly into a more puritanical vision of Catholic teaching than he had exhibited until then. Afterwards, his main enemy appears to be moral relativism. It is this danger, which he associated strongly with modern, secular societies like the UK, that informed almost all his views. He was a conservative in the most basic possible way: he wanted to stop change.

Unfortunately, this mind-set also had an impact on his assessment of the causes and solutions for the Church's failings. As he leaves the Papacy, it is still unclear whether the Catholic Church will ever recover from the reports of terrible crimes against the children and the official indifference which met them.

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