Monday, 11 February 2013

Benedict XVI: Quitter

What do you call an ex-pope? Papa Emeritus? Pontiff-Ex? Maybe in Joseph Ratzinger's case, Ex-Benedict? I hear his official title will be Cardinal Ratzinger, Emeritus Bishop of Rome. So the name goes along with the job. Presumably someone else will be taking over the official Twitter account, too.

Unlike Rowan Williams, who has retired in the fullness of his health and vigour well before the official age of 70 and will no doubt pop up from time to time to offer the world nuggets of his wisdom (Heffers in Cambridge is charging punters £12 a ticket to come and hear him talking about his favourite books in a couple of weeks' time), Ratzinger is likely to vanish into the Vatican monastery currently being spruced up for him, or into some future old pope's home. He is going, after all, because by his own account his physical and (perhaps this is more significant) mental strength have deteriorated "to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." I suppose he might recover sufficiently, after a long rest, to write his memoirs. He could probably do with the money. I don't think there's such a thing as a papal pension plan.

In other words he doesn't want to repeat the drooling spectacle of the last days of John Paul II. Some unkind souls might suggest that Benny was already past it when he got the job seven odd years ago. But then by that stage JPII had been sunk in decrepitude for so long that most younger people struggled to recall a time when the pope wasn't a doddering old wreck. Perhaps that's why Ratzo was elected: while not actually senile, he at least looked plausibly pontifical. He came to the role fully formed, unlike his predecessor who during his first decade might easily have been mistaken for an East European mafia boss, were it not for the robes.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the departing pontiff. On one hand, he was a distinct improvement on his horribly overrated predecessor, who by most objective accounts was a fanatical and egotistical paedophile-enabler who turned the papacy into a creepy personality cult. His books as pope were collections of soupy platitudes with titles like Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his open-air masses closely resembled convocations presided over by the late Sun Myung Moon, albeit choreographed with rather less taste. He was quite sound on communism, I suppose. But, unlike Benedict, he protected notorious paedophiles including Maciel Degollado of the Legionaries of Christ and Austria's Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. The present pope's record in the matter isn't spotless, but he did at least belatedly (around 2000) recognise that the child abuse scandal was deadly serious and attempted to address it, which John Paul never did.

Ratzinger, moreover, is a proper intellectual, who writes proper, well-considered books and has an excellent taste in music. He has some charming foibles, such as a love of obscure papal regalia discarded by his modernising predecessors, but by and large he's a serious man out of place in these superficial times. I can really relate to comments he made the other week about social media - though I also recognise that they are hopelessly naive:


Often, as is also the case with other means of social communication, the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value. Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation. At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner. The social media thus need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation; of people who strive to cultivate forms of discourse and expression which appeal to the noblest aspirations of those engaged in the communication process.

Of course, much of what he stands for is repellent: he has called same sex marriage an "offence against the human person", continued his church's lethal opposition to the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, given pep talks to the American bishops on the need to destroy President Obama's healthcare reforms. His vision for the church has involved reaching out to disaffected Anglicans (the kind who imagine that the likes of Rowan Williams and now Justin Welby are somehow liberals) and the neo-Nazis of the Society of St Pius X, but excluded many forward-thinking Catholics. His papacy marks a full-scale repudiation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Second Vatican Council which met a full fifty years ago. His greatest supporters on the Internet are found among reactionaries and fogeys, whose love for Ratzinger is often expressed by pouring uncharitable and unChristian bile upon Catholic leaders closer to home. I don't just mean Damian Thompson.

Still, I've always admired his style (those red shoes! those hats!) and his steadfast refusal to compromise. And his age, I think, was a positive asset.

Personally, I'm all in favour of gerontocracy. It worked well for the Soviet Union, after all: it was only when (inspired, perhaps, by the evident popular success of JPII) the Russians went for the dynamic young Gorbachev that things began to go tits up. The Americans, meanwhile, stuck with the increasingly confused Ronald Reagan and proceeded to win the Cold War without really trying. Who set modern China on the road to its current prosperity? Why Deng Xiao Peng, who was probably born a nonagenarian. Meanwhile, our own current enthusiasm for young and telegenic leaders has brought us Blair and now Cameron.

The Papacy was one of the last institutions on earth to uphold the ancient principle of dying in office. Other ancient churches feel the same way: last year alone saw the deaths of Pope Shenouda III of Egypt at 88 and Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria, who reached the grand old age of 98. We still have the Queen, of course, who seems in no hurry to follow the example of Beatrix of the Netherlands who is preparing to step down in the spring at 75. For her, we're always told, the Crown is a sacred trust given to her by God at her coronation; only death can dissolve her marriage to the kingdom. But presumably the Pope felt much the same way. The divine right of kings is a long-defunct concept, even in Britain (where succession is officially based on descent from the Electress Sophia of Hanover). But the divine appointment of popes is official Catholic doctrine: the cardinals meeting in conclave are supposed to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in their deliberations. Prince Charles, who will probably be our official representative at the installation of the next pope, might be thinking such wistful thoughts.