Out with God’s rottweiler: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI



“There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving examination as the Roman Catholic Church.” So wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay in his review of Leopold von Ranke’s mammoth The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome, during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1840). Such a complex organism certainly demands close scrutiny, and when something as unusual as a Papal resignation is announced, the cat is bound to find itself among unsuspecting pigeons.

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement suggested that the ageing pontiff may wish to return to this scriptorium to hold up the fort against secularism. Dan Brown will probably be scribbling something in parallel, smelling a conspiracy to ponder. After all, the last time this happened was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down.

When Ratzinger was elected Pontiff, he tended to be regarded as a spiffy, sharper version John Paul II, part ideological attack dog and part doctor, taking the pulse of the Catholic faithful. When it came to the more reactionary elements in the church such as Opus Dei, he cultivated and pampered them with enthusiasm.

Benedict XVI found himself holding the broom of history, cleaning out the stables, re-ordering the furniture and dealing with much he would rather not have. During his papacy, legal scholars pondered whether it would be possible to take him to court over administrative complicity in child abuse. Then came the issues of head of state and accountability – was the man even liable in any practical let alone juridical sense for those thousands of damaged beings? “Ratzinger,” explained Jakob Purkarthofer, “was part of a system and co-responsible for these crimes”.

One example of the Pope’s conduct when it came to confronting matters of child abuse comes to mind. As head of the Doctrine for the Congregation of the Faith, the then Cardinal Ratzinger ordered that Reverend Lawrence Murphy, who had sexually assaulted at least 200 children at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, leave the ministry. All to the good, except that Murphy was not defrocked, let alone punished or prosecuted via formal legal channels.

Victims of abuse at the hands of clergy will remind Benedict XVI that it was under his pontificate that the revelations bubbled and boiled. Some church officials were irritated, notably Cardinal Sodano who saw such accusations as “idle gossip”. As Pope, God’s Rottweiler seemed reluctant to bite, let alone bark.

The stories are numerous and ghastly – incidents where priests were shuffled about; cases where pledges for silence were made. Matthias Katsch of the NetworkB group concerned with German clerical abuse victims has said “The rule of law is more important than a new pope.” Norbert Denef, the group’s chairman, was blunt: “We will not miss this Pope.”

The singularity of the Catholic Church is an intentional, extra-legal construction. In terms of criminal law, labour law and matters of state subsidies, the status of the church in many countries is one of employer and educator. Katsch has called for an end to such exceptionality, urging German lawmakers to bring the Catholic Church into standard legal frameworks.

So the Benedict legacy is one of mild promise, revelations and shadows cast by the previous pontificate. The Second Vatican Council, established by Pope John XXIII in 1959 to address doctrinal issues between the church and the modern world, has started to develop mouldy encrustations. Priests in some countries are becoming schismatic – the Austrian case being notable in the wake of child abuse claims there. It’s not so much a broom as an entire refurbishment that is required.

This then, is a battle to the finish in terms of recognition. “No matter how tired or weak Pope Benedict may be, he still has two weeks to use his vast power to protect youngsters,” Barbara Dorris from the protection group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) has said.

This, to put it mildly, would be an understatement, but what do you expect when the wolf is asked to reform his harmful ways to sheep? Any outcome is bound to be unsatisfying.