Another Pope John XXIII? Not a chance
Bill Keller, NYT
To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing became the papacy of Benedict XVI like his leaving it. I mean that as more than a backhanded tribute. How much suffering has mankind endured at the hands of leaders who could not bear to relinquish power, either because they feared the personal consequences of letting go or because they genuinely considered themselves indispensable? How rare are the big men who accept the verdict of time? In the Catholic Church they are once-in-six centuries rare. I have a soft spot for powerful people who know when to step down, and Benedict deserves respect for that.
The first reaction will be, understandably, to search out the back story, the real story – the undisclosed carcinogenic time bomb, the incipient Alzheimer’s, the impending next wave of scandal that pushed him from the pontiff’s chair. Dig away, but I will not be surprised if his own straightforward explanation holds up: “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of the faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me…” Given the bookish, precise intellectualism of this pope, I would bet it was the “strength of mind” more than physical infirmity that convinced him he could not, at 85, keep up with the challenges. His explanation will seem entirely plausible to anyone who has watched a loved one burn out.
Benedict’s eight-year reign will be appraised intensively and, I expect, unkindly. He will be described as a diehard traditionalist, a reactionary in a time of revolutionary yearnings. He gave no encouragement to the nuns who sought to break through the stained-glass ceiling, to gays who wanted the church to come to terms with their humanity, to Catholics who questioned the Vatican orthodoxy on contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and, of course, abortion. His record in handling the great disgrace of the pedophile priests is mixed at best. To his credit, he turned the juridical machinery of the church against predator priests and tried to speed it up a little. But he recoiled from holding bishops accountable for their passive oversight and active cover-ups. Scornful of the press (which, in large part, found him remote and hard) he never really engaged the public storm of outrage and dismay. Probably his low point in honoring his responsibility to “govern the bark of Saint Peter” was his refusal to address the case of an abusive priest who was allowed to return to service in Munich when Benedict – then Joseph Ratzinger – was the city’s archbishop.