Catholic Church

A pope who has failed to connect with the modern world

Kevin Rafferty says the pope's legacy of a wounded church may be too great a test for his successor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 1:29am

Soon after Benedict XVI announced he was quitting as pope at the end of this month, the Vatican was hit by a drenching thunderstorm in which violent lightning appeared over the top of St Peter's basilica. But was this an omen for good or ill for the first voluntary resignation of a pope for hundreds of years?

Benedict was the most intelligent man to be pope in centuries, probably the best theologian, a wonderful writer, and personally charming; but as both cardinal and pope, he was burdened by his lofty view of the responsibilities of office.

He will leave a church that is both flawed and wounded by his leadership. Its recovery will not be easy, not least because he and his Polish predecessor, John Paul II, appointed all of the cardinals who will choose the next pope, all men, mostly cast in Benedict's stern image, correct in doctrine, utterly opposed to contraception, abortion, gay marriage, married priests, women priests, all things that much of the rest of the world takes for granted.

Years ago, I had personal experience of the charm yet steely uptight personality of Benedict. I was editor of The Universe, the British Catholic newspaper, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict then was, was visiting Cambridge University.

He was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor body to the unholy Inquisition, and had won a reputation as "God's Rottweiler" for his dedication to preserving the purity of Catholic doctrine from questioning theologians.

I pleaded for a chance to talk to him, if not for a formal interview. He refused. But he did allow me to take his photograph, and tamely agreed to go to the rooftop for a better shot, smiling but steadfastly resisting anything beyond innocuous small talk.

Later, he said mass in the Catholic chaplaincy, dressed in full ecclesiastical fig, with mitre and crozier, for a workaday weekday mass. I was appalled, used to the informal understated style of Westminster's Cardinal Basil Hume, who remained a holy English monk to the end.

Elected pope at the age of 78, Benedict was regarded by some commentators as an interlude pope. But he continued pursuing his passion for doctrinal purity, as he saw it, steadfastly refusing any concessions to the mores of modern life.

Priests and even bishops who dared to suggest that the church should consider married or - horror - women priests to cope with the rapidly ageing priesthood in the Western world were hounded out.

American nuns, who have done valiant work in education and in helping the poor, the downtrodden and outcasts of society, were formally investigated and chided for not dressing properly and for straying from the Vatican's straight and narrow path by demanding a greater role for women in the church.

Meanwhile, wayward Catholic priests guilty of the criminal offence and the mortal sin of child abuse were shielded from punishment for years until publicly exposed. When the issue became a scandal for the church, Pope Benedict spoke of his personal sorrow and compassion for the victims and apologised - too little, too late, according to the victims.

The pope blundered in his relations with Muslims by quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor who blamed Islam for "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". He upset Jews with revisions to Good Friday prayers.

For the many Catholic bishops and traditional believers, Benedict was a beacon of certainty in a world that has lost the faith.

But for millions of ordinary Catholics struggling with everyday problems, as for the billions of non-Catholics, Benedict had little to say that was relevant to their lives.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit former archbishop of Milan, in a deathbed interview last year criticised the church for being 200 years behind the times, burdened by the ashes of history, bureaucracy, rites and rituals that covered the embers of burning love that Jesus Christ taught.

Speculation has started in the media about who Benedict's successor will be and whether it is time for a non-European pope, perhaps from the New World or Latin America or Africa, which are the fastest-growing areas of Catholicism.

Most of it is fatuous because it ignores the ecclesiastical realpolitik that 61 of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote - those who are under 80 when the conclave is held - are Europeans. The Italians, who number 28, are clamouring that it should be their turn. Perhaps they are right: a worldly, cynical Italian might be more understanding of the shabby sinful real world than Benedict has been.

Catholics claim that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals in their secret conclave where they vote for Benedict's successor. The spirit will have to be at its inspiring best to cut through the politicking and to light upon a man who has faith, hope and love powerful enough to rescue a wounded church.

Kevin Rafferty, a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post, is a political commentator