It is clear the Roman Catholic Church’s financial and sexual abuse scandals have taken a toll on Pope Benedict XVI, whose resignation today shook the world. Who will be his successor? Exclusive analysis and the backstory from guest author Timmian Massie.
Even the most ardent Vatican watchers were stunned by this morning’s news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign, effective February 28. The reason given was age and infirmity, but for a traditionalist pope to resign rather than die in office raises questions that need answers.
Benedict broke the long-standing tradition of a pope dying in office. Perhaps he did not want to go through the public decline of his predecessor, John Paul II. With so many issues in the Vatican, it is possible Benedict did not want someone else to control its bureaucracy and decision-making. Is there more to this story than what the world is being told? I’ll leave that to the Vaticanistas, great journalists like Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari, who know the ins and outs of the Vatican better than any reporter, particularly in the U.S.
The decision by Benedict to resign was probably made last week. He is reported to have had a private audience with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, on Friday. The dean normally would run the conclave to elect the next pope, but Sodano is now over 80 and not allowed to participate. Still, the pope would be expected to tell the dean of any decision to resign. There is a history between these two men. Benedict replaced Sodano as the Vatican Secretary of State, the equivalent of Prime Minister, with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. It was Sodano who was believed to have worked with Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, to stop attempts to take action against the notorious founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Rev. Marcial Maciel, who is reported to have fathered children and abused seminarians under his care for decades.
The fact that this secret could remain out of the news is testament to the tightening of the pope’s inner circle following the “Vatileaks” scandal. In all likelihood, only a small cadre of the pope’s closest confidantes knew, including Bertone and Benedict’s long-time secretary, now the Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein.
For the Catholic Church, a papal resignation is unchartered territory. There is only a brief mention of the possibility in Canon Law, the law of the Church. Canon 332§2 states, “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in July 1415, to settle a schism, or division in the Church, which led to as many as three men claiming to be pope at the same time.
A conclave (from the Latin for “with keys”) will be held in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in March to elect Benedict’s successor. The then pope-emeritus will not participate in the discussions or election.
Benedict most likely wanted someone in place before the Christian Holy Week and celebration of Easter, a taxing time of liturgical ceremonies that include Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square; Holy Thursday liturgy in St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome; Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum; the three-hour celebration on the evening of Holy Saturday in St. Peter’s Basilica, and Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, followed by the papal address called Urbi et Orbi – to the city (of Rome) and to the world. It is an exhausting schedule for any priest, much less an 85-year-old pope.
It is clear that the various financial and sexual abuse scandals have taken a toll on Benedict. As for the latter, history will record Benedict’s role as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly called the Holy Office or The Inquisition, which oversaw every aspect of priestly sexual abuse. Ratzinger enforced a code of silence, with the penalty of excommunication facing anyone who broke that code. For a cleric of any rank, it is a penalty that is the equivalent of a theological death sentence. Yet, he was assuredly aware of abuse cases around the world. That scandal continues to unfold today.
Never as popular or as traveled as his predecessor, Benedict was not comfortable with the public relations aspects of the papacy. He and John Paul II were conservative brethren, yet John Paul had the actor’s ability of delivering harsh news with flair. Benedict’s missteps early after his election, with comments on Mohammed and other religions being deficient, riled Muslims and non-Catholics, and highlighted Benedict as being more the Catholic theologian-professor and less the political player on the world stage. For Catholics, Benedict’s books on the life of Jesus, pronouncements on moral issues, and return to traditional Latin liturgies and vestments were music to conservative ears.
Benedict also was vehemently against any progress in human rights for the LGBT community, taking an even harsher tone than John Paul II. In 2011, Benedict went so far as to have his representative to the United Nations try to block a resolution supporting human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity that delegates ultimately passed.
Who will be Benedict’s successor? Italian cardinals hope it will be one of their own, as it has been nearly 35 years since an Italian was Bishop of Rome. The election of Polish-born Karol Wotyla in 1978 followed 455 years of Italian popes. Developing nations hope one of their cardinals will be selected, since Africa, Asia and Latin America are where the Church is growing rapidly.
The scandals have taken their toll on church attendance in Europe and the U.S. For example, the pews are nearly empty in Ireland, a country where the Catholic Church was the power behind the throne for centuries, but where sexual and physical abuse scandals have led to a new schism; this one between the Vatican and the Irish government and the people they represent.
Could a “First World” prelate still be elected? Of course, though it will in all likelihood not be an American, despite U.S. media hyping New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Quebec-born Cardinal Marc Ouellett is high on many list of the papabile, those “papable,” or capable of being elected pope. He is the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which selects candidates for bishop and cardinal for the pope’s approval. The men who get elevated to those positions would have a debt of gratitude to Ouellett. His ties as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America will also be beneficial. Then again, it could be a cardinal from the ultra-conservative Church in Ghana or Nigeria, or one from Argentina or Honduras.
Whoever is elected will probably be of the same theological vein as the conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI, since they appointed all of the cardinal-electors under age 80. Then again, it was an elderly Italian thought to be a caretaker pontiff, Venice Patriarch Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who served just five years, but as Pope John XXIII, did more to bring the Church into a progressive era than any pope before or since, a legacy that John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to roll back under the guise of “reform.”
Image: Pope Benedict XVI today reading his resignation statement, via Vatican Radio
Timmian Massie is an adjunct professor at Marist College. He studied theology at the North American College in Vatican City and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and taught a course in Rome on the Vatican for many years, also for Marist. Massie has taught study abroad programs in Italy and the Middle East as an adjunct professor of religious studies.
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