The world is all a buzz with the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) will be resigning at the end of the month. According the sources, it is do to his failing health. But it seems to me that red flags should be going up all over the place.
First, the papacy isn’t like a greeter job at Walmart from which the Pope can just retire. I mean to say, of course he can resign, but theologically it is a tough move. He isn’t quitting that 9-5 job at Taco Bell, or selling firearms at a local K-Mart. No, the Pope is supposed to be (theologically speaking) infallible in his (official) words and divinely inspired, wherein god essentially speaks through him. This is a calling if there ever was one, and that is why most Pope’s generally ride it out until the bitter end.
Now, not every Pope has done this. And many a news outlet have highlighted the fact (link leads to an article about four other bizarre papal retirees) that Ratzinger was not alone in his retirement from the papacy. But let’s be honest: Ratzinger has not been the most successful Pope.
In fact his legacy will not be a happy one. Let’s take a look at some of the big shockers from his tenure:
- Just a day or so after Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, it became known that he was both in the Hitler Youth and also was a solider in the Wehrmacht. Many have argued that Ratzinger was forced to join as a youth and that he was drafted into service, pointing the fact that his father was an anti-Nazi and had to move many times. Also it is said that Ratzinger deserted the Wehrmacht following his return to Bavaria after a brief tour setting tank traps. I am more inclined to believe that he was not a willing participant.
- Ratzinger has a history of backing rather bizarre individuals within the church. Amid allegations, Ratzinger had backed Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus in 2007 until the findings proved that Wielgus had worked with Poland’s communist-era Secret Service. In 2009 he lifted an excommunication of a bishop (Richard Williamson) who denied the Holocaust had happened.
- He has had a series of regrettable gaffes that have placed more tensions on the ties between Jerusalem and the Vatican. In his trip to Israel in 2009, Ratzinger missed an opportunity to recant for some of his actions during WWII and offer sympathies for the 6 million+ Jews who died. Rather his trip was laced with missteps that made it seem as though he was purposefully avoiding the issue (perhaps the worst misstep is the use of the word ‘killed’ rather than ‘murdered’).
- His stance on birth-control and contraception are archaic. During his tenure the church excommunicated the mother of a 9-year-old-girl raped by her step father and the doctor who helped save the girls life by giving her an abortion (again, 9-year-old girl here). The church did not excommunicate the rapist. He also made the bizarre comment that condoms would not help Africans (even though this is contrary to the evidence) and would actually make the situation worse (seriously he said that). Later he shifted positions but then sort of recanted.
- His views on sex practices seem to highlight the ever present hypocrisy in the church. During his time as Pope, evidence emerged of corruption and conspiracies to hide the truth about the amount of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy across the world. His hands are dirty in this as well, as the New York Times reported, Ratzinger–along with others–did not defrock a priest accused of molesting upwards of 200 young boys some decades ago. The Pope’s response? He stated that pedophilia wasn’t considered “evil” before the 1970’s. So I guess it’s okay then? Hitchens did not mince words on this issue.
- There is also that incident last year where evidence came to light about the Vatican Bank’s rather sinful practices (money-laundering in this instance).
In sum, the Pope has led a career full of missteps, hypocritical doctrinal beliefs, uncaring or unsympathetic views towards victims of violent crimes and those who were murdered by Nazis, while presenting himself as completely unaware of the various criminal activities and corruption in the church over the past seven years.
I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down hard Ratzinger here. He has, on occasion, done some good. A few years ago he tried to open up a dialog with atheists in an attempt to find some common ground. But this only occurred after a bitter and often vitriolic back-and-forth with atheists. He removed the ultra-conservative Legion of Christ leadership following an investigation he ordered into allegations of sexual abuse and drug use. But while Ratzinger made well with this incident, it seems almost silly in light of the inaction taken on his part throughout the years dealing with similar instances. The good he has done pales in comparison.
It seems more like the good comes only after something terrible or tragic or unpopular happens for which the Holy See is chastised. In other words, the good that came from the papacy seems reactionary rather than genuine. That is problematic.
On a more personal level, Ratzinger, as a systematic theology dean at Tübingen in the 1970’s, played a pivotal role in renouncing the Thesis work of Thomas L. Thompson (click through the link to read the full story), my mentor. It is worth noting that Ratzinger’s former post prior to being Pope was with the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which at one time was responsible for the Inquisition trials of heretics and witches).
In the end, lots more will be said about Ratzinger and more will speculate on why he is stepping down. I tend to think that some real reasons are being hidden from the public eye. Undoubtedly Ratzinger may also be buckling under the weight of public pressure and the people’s court. There were so many scandals that rocked the church since he became Pope that it must have taken a high physical price. Then again, many of these scandals were preventable (as is the case with all scandals–they are self-actuated), and I have a hard time believing the Pope had no involvement.
Only time will tell, it seems. In the meantime, we can all look forward to his role as the next Emperor Palpatine in the forthcoming Star Wars saga:
One final thought (courtesy of Bob Cargill): When the Pope resigns, does he revert back to being fallible again?