Resignation of Benedict XVI – an Italian perspective
CHURCH FEARS “WOUND” TO PAPACY
“Two popes” pose cohabitation issue
“And now the contagion must be stopped”. The speaker is a high-ranking cleric and prominent figure in the Curia. He reviews recent hours in the Vatican as if they were an as yet unresolved bereavement, muttering almost to himself: “This resignation by Benedict XVI is a vulnus, a wound to institution, jurisprudence and image. A disaster”. Behind the formal or sincere declarations of solidarity and sympathy for Josef Ratzinger what emerges is fear. The horror of a vacuum. Or even of the exit of a pontiff who was used for years as a screen, a shield, by many of those who should have been protecting him and now fear a backlash from the demise of the papacy’s sacrality.
Those same individuals now perceive the uncertainties of a successor called in to effect a root-and-branch clean-up, to redraw the Vatican’s boundaries and restore its identity by removing some of the more egregious accretions. In other words, the resignation is seen as contagious. The corridors of ecclesiastical power treat it as a potential virus that could undermine the system. “If the idea of physical efficiency as a criterion for staying on or stepping down takes hold, we risk devastating consequences. It can only be hoped that a new pontiff will be able to take the situation in hand, draw clear, Roman boundaries and stop the drift”. The dismay written on the faces, and evident in the carefully weighed words, of the more influential cardinals tells the story of one power bloc teetering as another, having waited for eight years, begins to savour revenge.
Nevertheless, the formations facing up to each other still lack organisation or detailed strategies. All that is perceptible is the impression, or rather the conviction, that things will soon change radically and that an entire ecclesiastical hierarchy will be pushed aside, to be replaced in the name of some as yet unformulated logic. But it is the impact on the system that generates most apprehension, and not just among traditionalists. A pope who can resign is weaker and more exposed to pressures that can become overwhelming. There is no avoiding the suspicion that Josef Ratzinger’s decision to step down came at the end of a long series of huge, veiled, unrelenting pressures, of which the Vatican’s corvi [malicious leakers, literally “crows” – Trans.], the travails of IOR, the Vatican bank, and the trial of the papal butler Paolo Gabriele were only part. A question mark hangs over the future, now that there is a precedent for papal resignation. From this point of view, the Ratzinger years leave a slightly perturbing legacy, quite apart from the chorus of praise for his gifts as a man of faith. The desire to refocus immediately on the conclave reveals a haste to move on from a break that is destined to weigh on every decision taken by his successors.
The resignation of the leading theoretician of the Church’s “virtuous irrelevance” because he believes he no longer has sufficient strength hints at an unbearable burden that could be reproduced at will by anyone wishing to destabilise a papacy. It might seem almost blasphemous to say so but the papacy with its aura of divinity looks to have been “relativised” all of a sudden and reduced to a dramatically mundane dimension. It is as if secularisation in its career-driven form has defeated the shy pope detached from worldly things; the controversial appointments made by Josef Ratzinger in recent years have apparently backfired on the head of the Catholic church. In this situation, one wonders what Peter’s and Benedict XVI’s successor can do to reconstruct the papal image.
The old paradigm has been shattered. A new one has to be built not from scratch but from a trauma that will be challenging to resolve. And this will take place at a time when the Catholic Church has set itself the task of re-evangelising Europe, for years a mission territory, and of rechristianising the West against the twin influences of what has been called moral relativism and the Islamic invasion. A pope who takes the extraordinary step of resigning, crushed by the impossible task of reforming Church institutions, can be seen as a metaphor for a temptation to disengage that goes beyond the bounds of the Vatican and emblematically involves Europe and the West.
The resignation of Benedict XVI, the German pope, in the end resembles the resignation of a continent and a civilisation in profound crisis, incapable of reading the signals of a world that pre-empts and wrongfoots them. Their limits of analysis and vision, both religious and secular, lie exposed. Detractors see a flight from responsibility in all this while admirers view it as a heroic gesture, a demonstration of humility and an expression of faith in the future. One feels that a successor will have to destructure, if not destroy, first before he can reconstruct. The term clean-up has a threatening connotation for those in the papal Rome who have exploited Josef Ratzinger’s weaknesses as a governing pope. That threat has already been registered in order to prepare resistance.
The barely hinted-at quibbles and differences of interpretation between the Osservatore romano and the Vatican press room over the timing of Benedict XVI’s decision to go are the little creaks that tell us more serious damage is on the way. To assert, as the Osservatore romano has, that Benedict XVI took the decision to step down months ago is to remove the suspicion that his resignation was caused by a recent, or very recent, event in his innermost circle of collaborators. The prominence, and pre-conclave role, of the present Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, and of his predecessor Angelo Sodano, are already under scrutiny in an attempt to decipher the strategies of groupings that are viewed as adversaries. Meanwhile, the judicial investigations involving IOR and the Vatican’s financial institutions simmer away.
In this context of uncertainty, the Pope’s exit, announced for 28 February, is a factor that complicates rather than clarifies. “There cannot be two popes in the Vatican, even if one is formally an ex-pope”, is the warning. It is a whispered, instinctive, insuppressible warning that shows, indirectly, the enormity of what took place two days ago. It also highlights an issue that the Holy See will have to tackle over the next few weeks: the simultaneous presence in the Vatican of Benedict XVI, the first pope to resign for many centuries, and his successor. The symbolism is too powerful, too overwhelming, for Josef Ratzinger to acquire invisibility by shutting himself away in a former enclosed nunnery in a corner of the Vatican Gardens.
Yet invisible is what he must become. His future is oblivion. The presence of an old and a new pope is so embarrassing that some commentators, including Mgr Rino Fisichella, do not rule out novel solutions. In other words, the final residence of the man who until 28 February will be Benedict XVI could in the end be outside the Vatican City and not within it. However, the Vatican is the only place where photographs of the other pope could be precluded, undesirable encounters avoided and checks put in place to prevent a single word passing the lips of the former pontiff, even though he will continue to be Pope after his resignation. Commentators reckon that “Catholics will not want to see two of them”. The paradox is that Josef Ratzinger will be studying and mediating in isolation in the heart of Rome, right next to the Vatican powers that he sought to shake off in the most spectacular fashion possible.
From now on, to follow his path will be to observe the final public actions of a special person who is aware of entering a dark zone from which he will not be permitted to emerge. Apart from anything else, there is a feeling that many in the Church’s upper echelons wish to open a new chapter. Dismay at Josef Ratzinger’s decision and the deep esteem and affection in which he is held are offset by relief at resolving a situation held to be no longer sustainable. In all likelihood, some have failed to conclude with sufficient lucidity that Benedict XVI was not himself the problem but merely an indicator of the Vatican’s problems. Using him as a scapegoat will not remove the other issues that remain and are not his sole responsibility. The sixteen days of interregnum that separate us from 28 February actually represent a watershed of the centuries. They will soon show how much vigour has been lost, not so much by the Pope as by some of the logic of the past. At least Josef Ratzinger has had the courage to see that logic and reject it.