Of what should we not be afraid?
We should not fear the truth about ourselves.
~Pope John Paul II
The sudden announcement of the upcoming resignation of Joseph Ratzinger—Pope Benedict XVI—as head of the Roman Catholic Church has evoked statements of surprise, suspicion and concern from the international community. On February 11, Ratzinger told a shocked audience of bishops and cardinals that his deteriorating health had created an “incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” The next day, however, a Vatican spokesman clarified that “Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign is not due to ill health but the inevitable frailty that comes with aging.” The spokesman added, “His general health was normal for a man nearing 86 years of age.” Speaking to reporters in Germany, the pope’s brother, George Ratzinger, also said that his brother was “relatively well.” He pointed to concerns other than health for his brother’s sudden decision. Which leaves many asking, “What is the real reason for this extremely rare abdication of papal authority?”
A resignation by a sitting pope is unprecedented in the modern era. The last individual to voluntarily abdicate was Pope Gregory XII who quit in 1415 (a move generally seen by historians as a concession in response to the disastrous Western schism). With the few exceptions of those forced out of power during the turbulent Middle Ages, every pope has remained as head of the Church until death. Many Vatican watchers are suggesting that the resignation is another indication of deep, on-going crisis within the Church. Perhaps of more serious concern than the Pope’s age or health are the mounting scandals faced by the Church both within Italy and abroad.
One of the issues raised by Ratzinger’s brother, among others, is the so-called “Vati-leaks” scandal involving internal Vatican documents, letters and diplomatic cables that were allegedly taken by the pope’s butler and leaked to Italian journalists. These documents pointed to financial corruption in Vatican contracts and bitter divisions over measures being taken to comply with an investigation into money laundering by the Vatican Bank. Included in the documents was a letter warning of a plot to murder Ratzinger. Mentioned in the letter was Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s secretary of state and the Vatican’s second most senior figure. Sections of the Italian media suggest the letter is proof of a bitter power struggle between the Italian wing of the Church and the German/Polish wing, which has held the papacy for almost 40 years.
The other major crisis hanging over Ratzinger is the ever-growing wave of sexual abuse charges brought by people claiming to have been molested and raped by priests in both the US and Western Europe. Ratzinger not only presided over the Church’s handling of the sex abuse scandals while Pope, but had been placed in charge of handling the issue by his predecessor Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). At the time, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was also head of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” previously the “Institution to the Inquisition.” Ratzinger’s relentless pursuit of “liberation” theologians and anyone within the Church questioning dogma on matters such as contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, papal infallibility and celibacy for priests earned him the nicknames of “grand inquisitor” and in German, the “Panzerkardinal.”
The revelations of both rampant abuse of children and the systematic cover-up of these crimes by the Church hierarchy has contributed to the rising alienation of Catholics from the Church. At the same time, it has fueled the Vatican’s financial crisis, with hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly from the Church in the United States, going to financial settlements with the victims. Formerly major sources of Vatican funding, many U.S. dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy as the Church continues to evade and disrupt efforts to achieve full disclosure regarding their policies on offending priests.
In fact, even as the Conclave forms to select Benedict’s replacement, Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Roger M. Mahoney of Los Angeles are being deposed by prosecutors after the release of over 12,000 pages of internal church files revealing their roles in allegedly shielding accused priests from the law. The two high profile bishops have also been accused of dragging out investigations to force as many cases as possible outside of the statue of limitations for prosecution. All of this while Dolan’s name is rumored to be on the short list of possible successors to the papal throne.
Adding to the claims of scandal and internal strife, Pope Benedict has scheduled a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for Saturday, February 23 to discuss securing protection and immunity from prosecution from the Italian government. According to Italian media sources, Ratzinger’s meeting follows upon the apparent receipt by the Vatican of a diplomatic note from an undisclosed European government on February 4, stating its intention to issue an arrest warrant for Ratzinger, who resigned from his pontificate less than a week later.
The International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State (ITCCS) has written to President Napolitano, asking him to refrain from assisting Ratzinger in evading justice. The ITCCS will be sponsoring a series of ongoing protests and occupations of Roman Catholic churches and offices through its affiliates around the world beginning in Easter week, March 24-31, 2013, and continuing indefinitely. These actions will accompany the legal efforts to bring Joseph Ratzinger and other Vatican officials to trial for their alleged complicity in crimes against humanity and criminal conspiracy.
Regardless of whether or not Pope Benedict is resigning for reasons of failing personal health or failing institutional health, his departure is an opportunity for the Church to take stock of how it seems to have strayed so far from the message of peace, love and equanimity embodied by its spiritual founder. The very idea that these monumental scandals could even possibly be the cause of Ratzinger’s early departure is damning enough. Perhaps well-meaning Catholics around the world will finally begin to separate themselves from an institutional authority that has clearly lost its way and instead create new, regional models to experience and express their faith. If the Church is not able to come clean about its compliance in multi-generational corruption and abuse, then maybe the best choice for a new pope is no pope at all. In the mean time, we all await God’s next move.