Sunday 18 February 2018

The private life of a part-time Pope

As Benedict XVI approaches his 82nd birthday, John Cooney reports on the growing controversy surrounding his papacy

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the Petrine Throne in 2005 and chose the name of Benedict XVI, Ireland's Cardinal Desmond Connell predicted that the man demonised 'God's Rottweiller' by a hostile liberal media would surprise his critics by dint of his attractive personality and huge theological brain.

Four years on, Pope Benedict has indeed become 'a Pope of Surprises', but not exactly in the brilliant way forecast by Connell. The big surprise of his short pontificate so far is that he has united both the left and right wings of the Church in their questioning the strength of his commitment to the Council.

This extraordinary achievement has come about as a result of a combination of gaffes and a semi-reclusive lifestyle in which he is a part-time pope and a part-time theologian. He is now dubbed 'The Pope of Errors' or 'The Pope Invisible'.

A remarkable insight into the monarchical lifestyle of this latter-day 'Prisoner of the Vatican' was penned by Rome-watcher John Follain, a portrait which has found credence in criticisms voiced by his arch-critic Hans Kung and his awestruck biographer George Weigel.

"In the hushed Apostolic Palace off St Peter's Square, Pope Benedict starts the day with a 7am Mass in his private chapel, followed by a lone breakfast," Follain writes. "He meets a few visitors in the morning and then, after a lunch served on gold-rimmed plates bearing his seal, retires to his study to write speeches and read theological works throughout the afternoon and evening."

It is this leisurely pace to the burden of the papacy by Benedict, 82 years old this April, that is attributed as the root cause for a series of blunders which have raised doubts about his capacity to accomplish the diplomatic niceties of being universal pastor and Sovereign of the Vatican City State.

"People feel disorientated," a Vatican insider said sotto voce to a perplexed visitor. "It's a feeling common to both traditionalists and reformers. Our impression is that there isn't anyone at the wheel."

Benedict was at the centre of international controversy after he lifted the excommunications from four bishops of the breakaway Society of St Pius X, one of whom is Briton Richard Williamson, who has denied the scale and genocidal intent of the Holocaust.

The Pope who has restored the Latin Mass into the pantheon of Catholic liturgy, was trying to heal a schism with the followers of the society of Pius X, founded in 1970 by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre. At best, this was naive.

At worst, it showed a lack of grasp of the virulence of the Lefebvrites, who are wedded to a long-standing tradition of anti-semitism in France, allied to opposition to the 18th-century French Revolution, the ecclesiastical equivalent of which they believe was embodied in the 'Modernist' Pope John XXIII's liberal reform Council, particularly its espousal of religious liberty and its absolution of contemporary Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Benedict also offended German President Angela Merkel, the German Conference of Bishops and neighbouring Austria, when he appointed as auxiliary bishop of Linz the Rev Gerhard Maria Wagner -- a cleric notorious for his comments that Hurricane Katrina was God's vengeance upon sinful New Orleans, that the Harry Potter series is Satanic and that homosexuality was curable.

In the ensuing damage limitation efforts by Vatican officials, it was they who received the brunt of criticism for badly advising the Pope. The conservative American religious affairs writer, George Weigel, criticised the Vatican for its "chaos, confusion and incompetence", and the Pope's former Swiss colleague, Prof Hans Kung, whose licentiate as a Catholic theologian was withdrawn by the late John Paul II, lamented that Benedict has surrounded himself with right-wing 'Yes' men.

It was Kung, too, who pointed out two major flaws in Benedict's approach to the papacy: first, he does not listen or take advice, as was shown when he offended the Muslim world in his Regensburg address when he appeared to quote favourably a Byzantine emperor who described the prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman"; second, he has wrapped himself in 'a monarchical' mode of papacy, notwithstanding his claims to be the authentic interpreter of Vatican II's description of the Church as "the People of God".

Although Williamson has been removed from the head of his abbey in Argentina by his Religious Order, and Wagner's appointment shelved, Benedict's mistakes and inactivity have rekindled calls around the global Church for a more consultative 'People's Church'.

This has manifest itself most prominently in Austria, where Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, after a six-hour emergency meeting of the Episcopal Conference, published a letter criticising the Vatican's lack of communication, especially for nomination of bishops.

With senior members of the Curia -- the papal government -- reportedly squabbling, there is growing talk of personnel changes being made to provide Benedict with sounder advice.

However, the biggest question mark on Benedict's reign was put by his compatriot German Cardinal, Walter Kasper, when he attributed the recent "misunderstandings and management errors" to the curia.

As Follain noted, this is an attack on the Pope himself. It is a wake-up call to Benedict to decide whether he is Pope Benedict or is still Prof Ratzinger.

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