The Dubious Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.




One of the more interesting aspects of Pope Benedict's resignation announcement is that assessments of his leadership haven't been afforded the deference generally paid to the recently deceased. It's not all hagiography and roses. Over the past couple of days, I've read numerous rundowns of some of the more controversial aspects of both his papal reign and earlier years.

This pope has been a divisive figure from the outset. A hardline conservative with a Nazi background seemed an odd choice. Some very questionable choices regarding priestly abuse at various points in his career have not helped, so his appointment just as the sex abuse scandal was hitting critical mass made him something of a lightning rod. (See above. Weird.)

As he prepares to surrender the reins of the Vatican, he leaves the Catholic Church far weaker than he found it. That's not entirely his fault. The Church's hidden history would have erupted in its face no matter who was pope. And the attrition of Catholics, even from strongholds like Ireland, was probably inevitable. But years of provocative policy decisions and outrageous statements haven't helped soothe an increasingly angry and disillusioned Church body... or world.

The leadership of Pope Benedict XVI has disappointed on a number of major issues, including: the sex abuse crisis, gay rights, women's rights, and respect for other religions -- particularly Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Paganism.



That he would choose the most regressive path should have been apparent from the very beginnings of his ascent up the rungs of power.

Alone among his theological collaborators, unlike his friends Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Kung, the mature Ratzinger moved into the hierarchy. He became a bishop, a shepherd of souls in the strict canonical sense of that expression. In 1977, Paul VI made him Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and almost immediately elevated him to the rank of Cardinal. In 1981, shortly after John Paul II's election to the papacy, Ratzinger moved to Rome as the newly appointed Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It was in that role that he made his reputation as God's rottweiler, a zealous defender of orthodox belief. Accusations of heresy, or of deviations from true doctrine -- a quaint concept, something associated with Joan of Arc, perhaps, or some medieval schism -- made a comeback. [emphasis mine]

Personally, I think he can be forgiven for his time in the Hitler Youth and the German military. It's not like he had much choice. But one would think that such a background might have caused him to be  more careful to avoid gaffes regarding Jews once he became pope, lest one think the former Nazi an anti-Semite. Instead, his reign has been marked by some very unfortunate decisions followed by rapprochement with Jewish leaders. That they were teachable moments is nice. That they were necessary in this day and age is alarming.

Particularly jarring, given his CV, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of four bishops including a Holocaust denier.

Lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops in 2009, including one who denied that the Nazis ever used gas chambers and claimed the historical evidence is "hugely against" Adolf Hitler being responsible for the death of 6 million Jews. The affair brought an anguished personal letter from Benedict to the bishops of the world apologizing for the way it was handled.

One could argue, and people have, that his restoration of such radical players was part of his broader attempt to reunify the Church. But the fact that he and his henchmen have moved so quickly and harshly against progressive priests, bishops, and nuns, gives the lie. I'm not saying that his Nazi background made him sweet on a Holocaust denier, but his affections definitely run to the incredibly backwards.

He also fanned the flames of anti-Semitism when he reinstated the old Latin Mass that included a very controversial prayer for the conversion of Jews. To quell the resulting controversy, he graciously removed language about Jews and their "blindness." The prayer still calls for their conversion, along with that of all non-Catholic Christians, and Pagans. Yes. We must all become Catholic. That's really the only hope for mankind.

Joseph Ratzinger distinguished himself early on as a doctrinaire Catholic with little patience for other religious influences. A slightly more youthful openness evaporated as soon as he began to acquire power. He targeted liberation theologians and even turned on previous colleagues for any possible contamination of Catholic ideas with hints of Buddhism or Christian Protestantism. He wasn't called God's rottweiler for nothing.

The Wild Hunt has a good round-up of its past coverage of Pope Benedict's condemnations of Pagans and other world religions. Jason Pitzi-Waters makes a strong case that throughout his career he has been outright hostile to Paganism and other non-Christian faiths. He has even singled out Buddhism as "narcissistic" and the biggest threat to the Church since Marxism. Buddhism. (?!!) It's quite a laundry list exposing him as one of the most non-ecumenical religious leaders in recent times. This is from the summary:

This is a pope that claimed indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers, who said at the recent Assisi gathering that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession. This was the Papacy of a man afraid of a post-Christian future, one “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” as he put it. His stepping down can only be met with something akin to relief, albeit one tempered by the knowledge that his sucessor will no doubt follow in his footsteps.

It makes for good, if chilling, reading and reminds us that Pope Benedict is more of a throw-back to the Joan of Arc persecuting, Inquisition leading, route out the heretics Roman Church of old, than we might want to admit.

He also dug deep into the Church's dark history to attack Islam.

The pope used a rather nasty historical citation about the Prophet Mohammed and provocatively asked if Islam was inherently prone to violence in a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Quoting from the 7th of the 26 “Dialogues Held With A Certain Persian, the Worthy Mouterizes, in Anakara of Galatia,” he asked:
“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Not helpful.

Also medieval are Pope Benedict's attitudes towards women. As stated, he equated the "grave crime" of ordaining women with sexual abuse of children. Worse, he's been far more proactive in dealing with the threat of female ordination than he has with the ongoing problem of priestly abuse. Where the defrocking of pedophile priests has typically dragged on for years or been derailed completely, a decree in May of 2008 made excommunication automatic for any attempt to ordain a woman.  Former priest Roy Bourgeois learned that the hard way, when he went afoul of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- although he has yet to receive any explanation of the reason for his excommunication. 

The congregation's letter does not make reference to specific charges against Bourgeois or mention his support for women's ordination, saying, "for the good of the Church, the dismissal from the said Society must be confirmed, and moreover, also the dismissal from the clerical state must be inflicted."

"There's no mention of what I did," Bourgeois said. "There's no mention ... of women's ordination. What crime did I commit that brought about this serious sentence? There's no mention of that. What did I do? What am I being charged with?"

I don't know. Maybe they thought it was self-evident, what with any support for the ordination of women being such an obvious evil.

The Vatican under Pope Benedict has also been very forward leaning on the problem of uppity nuns. He famously cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and denounced respected theologian Sister Margaret Farley for the high crime of having grown-up ideas about sex.

The sisters, it seems, are promoting "radical feminism." I'm not completely clear on the dividing line between feminism and radical feminism, as he defines it, but his commentary on the subject is positively Pat Robertsonesque.

I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.

It almost goes without saying that Pope Benedict has been resolute on the issue of gay marriage, saying as recently as this past December:

"People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being," he said. "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves."

"The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man's fundamental choice where he himself is concerned," he said.

. . .

Now, though, "Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his own nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will."

. . .

"When freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God," Benedict said.

Which is really just a fancy-pants way of saying, God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. It's also a decidedly non-mystical view, so it troubles me for whole other reasons.

If anyone was going to challenge the Catholic party line on gay people being "objectively disordered" it was not going to be this pope. In fact, he seems quite fond of the term, citing it, for instance, in his decision not to ordain men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies."

If his views on homosexuality have matured at all over decades, it's only in the use of slightly more qualified language and intellectual obscurantism. He was quite forthright in his earlier condemnations.

In his Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (1986), Ratzinger acknowledged the importance of science in understanding sexual orientation and warned that questions of "culpability" needed to be approached with "prudence." But the same letter also denounced "benign" understandings of sexual orientation with a fire-and-brimstone reading of the story of Sodom as God's "moral judgment ... against homosexual relations." 

It would have been vain to hope that anyone so ideologically backwards was ever going to break new ground on tolerance.

The one area where Pope Benedict has gotten credit for updating Vatican attitudes has been on sexual abuse. He's been far more proactive on the issue than anyone ever had been within those halls of power. But, as stated, in an environment where standing still is forward motion, that's not saying much.

On the one hand, he seems to grasp the horrors of abuse and its effect on the psyches of survivors -- an awareness that was sorely lacking among Vatican officials. On the other, he has been totally unwilling to rock the boat by actually doing anything about it. The fire-breathing disciplinarian who made his bones routing out doctrinal infractions and who rapidly snuffed out any whiff of womanly insurrection, turned cautious, circumspect, and politic, when faced with the institutional corruption that is destroying the Church. And he just doesn't seem to get that it's not the crime. It's the cover-up.

As cases of sexual abuse continued to make headlines, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI has at times publicly addressed the issue and even met with victims, beginning with five victims from the Boston archdiocese, where the abuse scandal first made global headlines.

But victims' advocates remain skeptical and critical over his handling of the matter, particularly the failure to punish bishops who protected abusers rather than children and teens.

"When forced to, he talks about the crimes but ignores the cover-ups, uses the past tense as if to suggest it's not still happening," said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He has vast powers and he's done very little to make a difference."

Not only was the sex abuse issue the one area where Pope Benedict stood a chance of moving the Church forward instead of backward, it was probably the single most critical issue before him. Yet, he will probably be remembered most for the spectacular failure of the Church to properly address the crisis. Indeed, his resignation was greeted with cheers by victims' advocates. His leadership was emblematic of the platitudinous, tone-deaf, ineffectual response, and the toothless reform that failed utterly to heal the Church from its self-inflicted wounds. Worse, he's failed the survivors of that abuse past, present, and future.

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