IT'S normal for a Pope to take the moral high ground: what is the point of him if he doesn't? We expect him to lay down the law. Which is why the tide of sleaze engulfing the Church over recent weeks, most of it related to accusations of priestly paedophilia, has Vatican-watchers worried.
When he was appointed Pope nearly five years ago, Benedict promised to clean up the Church. He would not be a showman Pope like John Paul II, he would not flog himself around the world addressing huge stadiums. The Church might be a smaller, tighter institution but it would be clean, consistent, and true to its word.
But events of recent weeks suggest that corruption is rooted close to its heart. A wealthy Italian industrialist called Angelo Balducci had been honoured by the Vatican as a gentiluomo del Papa, a "gentleman of the Pope", but then in charges that hit the headlines in Italy last month he was put under investigation for allegedly raking in money from sleazy building tenders.
Separately, a member of the Vatican choir claims he was paid to find gay partners for Balducci. Despite the Church's draconian stand on homosexuality, the Vatican has long been known as a gay hot house, and insiders believe that Benedict's elevation changed nothing.
Meanwhile scandals continue to rain down on the Church from abroad. Shortly after Benedict condemned the "heinous acts" of paedophilia among priests in Ireland, accusations of similar acts surfaced in the famous choir of Regensburg, in Bavaria, of which the Pope's brother Georg was director while Joseph Ratzinger was a professor at the university (Georg claims no knowledge of any such abuse during his time there).
Still more lurid are the accusations levelled at Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who died in 2008 aged 87. Back in the 1990s when Maciel was accused of by numerous young priests of abusing them sexually, Ratzinger, who, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had the charge of disciplining him.
Maciel resigned in 2005, and was required to live a life of prayer and penitence, but that was his sole punishment. In recent weeks, however, a whole new slew of accusations has been made: two of Maciel's illegitimate sons have claimed that their priestly father raped them repeatedly from the age of seven upwards; they have demanded $26m (f19m) from the Order (which has not denied the charges) in compensation.
Some of these cases concern events that happened decades ago, but some involve the Church today: nothing profound, it seems, has changed. And that is of grave importance to Benedict and his legacy.
Joseph Ratzinger's life falls neatly into two parts. In the first, he was a liberal reformer, energetically committed to bringing the Catholic Church into the modern world; in the second, which began around 1968, he rejected all that and became a counter-revolutionary warrior, dedicated to liberating the Church from trendy nonsense and restoring the purity which he saw the reform movement as having polluted.
As such, his ardour has never flagged. But if his reign as Pope is to have any positive meaning, it will because he leaves the Church leaner, perhaps, less popular, less interested in capturing the world's imagination, but more sure of what it believes in, preaching the Gospel clearly and with confidence. But how can that be with the sleaze lapping at the gates?
For centuries, the Catholic Church tried to carry on as though the modern world did not really exist. Galileo's imprisonment and the denial of the truths of the likes of Darwin were all part of that. And when the unification of Italy liquidated the Church's secular power and drove it in upon itself in the few thousand square metres of the Vatican City, something of the sort happened intellectually. The vast church with its thousands of bishops and millions of believers became a little room, crammed with musty certainties, and with the windows blacked out.
Then in 1958 a fat, aged cardinal called Angelo Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, was elected Pope following the death of Pius XII. He was not expected to live long -- and he didn't, dying a mere five years later -- nor to do much. His was expected to be a holding operation after the 19-year reign of his predecessor, a moment for the Church to reflect. Instead the man known as the sweetest Pope who ever lived instigated a revolution.
It didn't look or sound like a revolution, and Roncalli himself died in the middle of it. But the Second Vatican Council, attended by 2,800 bishops from around the world in four sessions from 1962 to 1965, turned out to be the most defining event in Christendom since the Reformation.
While the Church had been huddled in its blacked-out room, muttering Latin prayers, the world outside had changed. Roncalli, Pope John XXIII as he became, was an unusual prelate in that he was not afraid of this new world, and at the Council the Church he threw open the windows and to find a place for it in what the world had become.
His Church, in other words, was seeking to regain the central position in society that it had enjoyed in Europe and beyond for centuries -- without reclaiming its former unique authority. And in this remarkable enterprise, a young, dynamic theologian called Joseph Ratzinger, an adviser to the German bishops, was central. He "made anyone's shortlist of the most important theologians" at the Council, according to Vatican expert John Allen. He and his fellow scholars "broke through...into an open country of greater theological freedom," according to a German expert. He was committed to the Council's goals: a man who was a young seminarian at the Council said Ratzinger "inserted himself energetically for a renewed vision of the Church". Yet within two or three years of the end of the Council, he had executed a 180-degree turn. In 1966, Ratzinger's rapid rise through academia culminated in his appointment to Germany's top theological faculty at the University of Tübingen. But soon afterwards Tübingen became the epicentre for Germany's version of the French tumult of 1968. Political radicalism was on the rampage -- and, to his acute discomfort, Ratzinger discovered that the theological faculty became, as he put it, "the real ideological centre" of the march towards Marxism. On the campus, the Protestant Students' Union handed out flyers asking rhetorically, "What is Jesus's cross but the expression of a sado-masochistic glorification of pain? ... The New Testament is a document of inhumanity, a large-scale deception of the masses." Teachers who failed to endorse Marxism were considered timid petty-bourgeois and subjected to barracking and sit-ins.
"I never had difficulties with students," Ratzinger insisted many years later, but the liberal Swiss theologian who had appointed him, Hans Küng (whom the born-again, hard-line Ratzinger was later to purge) said that radical students targeted the lectures given by both him and his protege. "They came in and occupied the pulpits," he recalled. "Even for a strong personality like me this was unpleasant. For someone timid like Ratzinger it was horrifying."
Vatican II had seen the Church move to embrace the modern world in all its complexity -- but for Ratzinger, the events of 1968 proved that the Church risked being instrumentalised "by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel... The abuse of the faith had to be resisted... Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity." Ratzinger chose to retain his integrity by giving up being progressive -- and giving up also his cherished place at Tubingen and moving to a new university in Regensburg.
Instead of trying to embrace the modern world, the Church, in Ratzinger's new view, had to go the other way entirely: to cleave to traditional truth, purge false prophets, bear witness to the faith of the fathers despite the taunts and provocations of the fashionable. And to stand firm. In essence, that is what Joseph Ratzinger has been doing since.
In the days following John Paul II's death there was a sea change. Ratzinger swept all before him. In a fiery speech on the eve of the conclave, he delivered a withering denunciation of scepticism, secularism and relativism.
"In recent decades, the little boat of thought of many Christians has been...thrown from one extreme to another," he said, "from Marxism to liberalism...from atheism to a vague religious mysticism... New sects are born every day. To have a clear faith is often to be labelled a fundamentalist." All that, he said, was what the Church now had to fight. He was elected in a mere four ballots.
For millions of liberals in the Church who had desperately hoped, after nearly three decades of conservatism, for a change of direction -- for a return to the spirit of Vatican II --it was a deeply dispiriting result. "Electing Ratzinger after John Paul," an American Catholic said to me in St Peter's Square immediately after Ratzinger came out on the balcony to acknowledge the crowd, "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush." In the five years since, Benedict XVI has run true to form.
What we have seen -- and what no one would have predicted from this brilliant scholar and careful, scheming politician -- is a long succession of pontifical gaffes. The most celebrated one came during the speech he gave in 2006 at his old university in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor saying, "Show me what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."
Many such blunders followed. He went to Africa and said that condoms could make the AIDS situation worse. He stood in Istanbul's Blue Mosque, praying shoulder to shoulder with its Imam, then denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue. He refused to sign a UN declaration on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled. He went to Brazil and denied that the indigenous people had had the alien religion forced on them, but said rather that they had unconsciously desired it. He welcomed the schismatics of the Society of St Pius X back into the Church -- only discovering afterwards that one of the society's illegally created bishops, Richard Williamson, denied the truth of the Holocaust.
In 2000, John Paul II, on what he named The Day of Pardon, apologised for the Church's sins against Jews down the centuries. When Benedict visited Auschwitz in 2006, therefore, he seemed to be treading in his late boss's footsteps. But, as Jewish commentators were quick to point out, there was a difference. True, Benedict spoke of "this place of horror", where "unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man".
But the only victims whom he mentioned by name were Christians; and this supposedly involuntary member of the Hitler Youth appeared to exculpate ordinary Germans of any complicity in the death camps: Auschwitz came about, he said, because "a ring of criminals rose to power ... our people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power".
Benedict used this occasion to explain his Holocaust theory: it was because "deep down, those vicious criminals wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who...laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind...By destroying Israel...they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith."
For observers, there was something pathological going on here: this former Nazi was incapable of going down on his knees and begging forgiveness for what was done at Auschwitz -- done to those of a different faith -- in his name, by his democratically elected leaders. Instead he used the occasion to elbow aside the Jews and assert that Christianity had been the Nazis' real victim.
Being Pope is a lonely job. Pope Paul VI wrote in a private note: "It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome....to suffer alone....Me and God." Benedict must feel the same way. And in his raptures of lonely suffering, he has succeeded in turning St Peter's into an enormous bunker.