We do not have a Pope
A document which was leaked from the Vatican last summer quoted the Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo as forecasting that the ailing Pope Benedict XVI would be dead by November. Thankfully, the Cardinal was wrong, but recent developments have led to much the same result.
On February 11, the Pope stunned the Catholic Church by announcing that he would step down as Pope tomorrow, the first papal resignation in 600 years. Non habemus papam.
Although the world was shaken by the news, it also brought home to the Catholic faithful the Vatican’s long history of intrigue and politics and the all-important human and historical contexts.
Three previous popes who abdicated were all forced out. Martin I was pope for four years until 653, when he was charged with treason. Benedict V held the position for only a month until June 964, when the Holy Roman Emperor demanded his resignation in favour of Leo VIII. Benedict IX was in his early 20s when elected in 1032. Violent and debauched, his papacy was bought by his father. He was forcibly removed after 16 years.
When Celestine V was elected pope in 1294 he was in his 80s. Five months later, he resigned after changing the rules to allow him to do so. That voluntary resignation was a first. The happier precedent set by Celestine V helped Gregory XII. He ended his nine-year papacy by resigning in 1415 under pressure, as part of a deal that ended the Great Western Schism in the Church, which had followed a contested papal election in 1378.
Benedict XVI twice visited Celestine’s tomb in recent years. His abdication, therefore, seems relatively peaceful and uncannily echoes Celestine’s, which was “because of my lowliness, my desire for a more perfect life, my great age and infirmities”.
Pope Benedict XVI’s extraordinary decision to resign will probably be his main legacy to the Church. Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it” capture the situation vividly. This is the only great reform of Benedict’s pontificate, which has been a largely troubled one.
This was the action of a man who knew he could no longer sustain the near-overwhelming pressures of the job. There was an admirable and most touching honesty about the resignation statement spoken by the Pope, an ardent Latinist, in a dead language which many cardinals present probably did not understand: “I have had to recognise my incapacity adequately to fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”
Throughout his papacy, Benedict XVI has been an intellectual and a theologian, but not a manager. As Bishop Charles Scicluna aptly put it “We need a younger version of Benedict XVI with an extra bonus skill for management”. His papacy has been battered by scandal, characterised by damage limitation and a total intolerance of any other perspective on the mission and nature of the Catholic Church.
It has ranged from the horror of the world-wide ecclesiastical cover-ups of historic child sex abuse by priests, to questions about the Vatican bank’s involvement in money-laundering and tax evasion. The so-called Vati-leaks case, involving theft of private papers by his butler, which arose from a toxic row between the Pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone, and other Vatican factions, still haunts the papacy today.
Pope Benedict XVI may also have been prompted to resign by a shocking report on Vatican in-fighting by a committee of three cardinals that was submitted to him two months ago. According to the usually well-informed Italian magazine, Panorama, this contained “a devastating picture of the current situation of the Roman Curia: the divisions between cardinals and the resistance to change and to the work of transparency and cleansing called for” by the Pope. It seems probable that Benedict was not just tired, but worn out by the conflicts and machinations that have beset the Vatican during his reign.
The big challenges facing the next pope have at their heart the growing gulf between traditionalism and liberalism in the Church. The widening gap in the world between rich and poor, north and south, secularism and faith. It will require a pope of formidable and extraordinary stature to heal the wounds and overcome the divisions that have opened up over the past eight years of Benedict’s reign.
The exceptional circumstances of the conclave to elect the next pope will weigh heavily on the likely choice. Benedict XVI will still be alive to see the outcome. Even though he has promised not to take part, his ghostly presence not a mile from where the cardinals are meeting makes it highly unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in the conservative path that Benedict has mapped out for the Church.
However, the feuds within the Vatican Curia will also be central to the selection of Benedict’s successor. Cardinal Bertone will prepare the conclave and be the Vatican’s Head of State in the period leading up to the proclamation of a successor. But Bertone’s arch-rival and predecessor, Cardinal Sodano, is Dean of the College of Cardinals which will elect him.
Catholics must pray that the power of the Holy Spirit will guide the conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel unsullied by the politics that probably were responsible for the undoing of Benedict XVI’s papacy.