Pope Benedict XVI: The apologist

He was supposed to be a safe pair of hands. But five years into the job, Joseph Ratzinger is caught in an unprecedented papal storm
Click to follow

When his fellow cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI five years ago this month, they were deliberately opting for continuity in the face of demands from liberal Catholics around the world for a radical change of direction at the top.

Ratzinger, then just a few days short of his 78th birthday, was the long-time right-hand man to the headline-grabbing John Paul II, and so, his colleagues believed, would maintain the discipline, stability and clear sense of purpose that the Polish pontiff had brought to Catholicism in his 27 years at the Vatican.

What almost certainly didn't cross the minds of this most exclusive of electoral colleges, however, was that Ratzinger might turn out to be the very opposite of a safe pair of hands. But that is the prospect facing Catholicism this Easter. For Benedict XVI has been accused in recent weeks of tainting the very office of Pope, bequeathed by Jesus to Peter, with the long-running and horrific scandal of paedophile priests.

While no one is accusing Benedict XVI of himself being an abuser, damaging questions are being asked in Germany and America about the extent of his personal involvement in the decades of cover-up of the activities of perverted clerics that has taken such a toll on Catholicism's good name and moral authority. It has been alleged in particular that as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981 he was complicit in allowing Father Peter Hullermann, a known child abuser, to return to parish duties where he again preyed on children.

The Pope's involvement in this case was at the very most indirect, his supporters protest. Potentially more damaging, though, is the charge that as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II from 1981 onwards, he allowed Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused some 200 deaf boys in America, to avoid justice. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was sent two letters in 1996 from the local archbishop in Milwaukee asking for permission to defrock Murphy, but they went unanswered.

Such careful scrutiny of Benedict's past behaviour is, the Vatican has claimed, part of an "ignoble" media conspiracy to smear the Pope. Others label it an anti-Catholic crusade. But when Rome plays the anti-Catholic prejudice card, it can be an indication that it feels on shaky ground on the substantive points.

It is, of course, perfectly plausible that Benedict's deputy in Munich took the fateful decision on Hullermann – as the priest in question, Father Gerhard Gruber, has publicly acknowledged in a heartfelt mea culpa. Again, it is quite possible that, in the course of running what is the Vatican's major department of state, as well as propping up an increasingly frail John Paul II, Benedict didn't even see the Archbishop of Milwaukee's letters. And there was undeniably a note of anguish in the Pope's own letter last month to the people of Ireland over the past failings of the church to bring to justice clerical abusers.

Yet as he approaches the fifth anniversary of his papacy, Benedict is struggling to dispel the impression that he may be just another in a procession of very senior figures in Catholicism who took an unconscionably long time to realise the full horror of grown men in its clerical ranks sexually abusing youngsters in their care. The test of Benedict's papacy from now on will be whether he can cast off that shadow. The response he gets when he visits Britain in September will be one yardstick of his success.

There can be no doubting that he is determined to be the zero-tolerance Pope who has imposed a new regime to ensure that paedophiles never again abuse the office of priest. However, he can fully achieve his goal only if he wins back the wavering confidence of many lay Catholics who have been dumbfounded and shamed on learning what has been going on behind closed doors in their church. An even more formidable obstacle will be to regain the trust of the wider world audience already inclined to scepticism about the claims to moral authority explicit in Catholic teaching.

There was another phrase used at the time of Benedict's election in relation to his already advanced years. (Even in Catholicism, bishops have to retire at 75.) This would be, it was said, a "caretaker" papacy. Benedict would be seen by history as a footnote to John Paul II's long tenure. But until this latest scandal swamped the Holy See, this son of an anti-Nazi Bavarian policeman, whose childhood coincided with Hitler's rise to power, had surprised many by showing himself to be very much his own man.

While he may not have overturned any of his predecessor's key doctrinal rulings (for example the rejection of women priests, condoms and sex outside marriage), Benedict has vigorously promoted his own "big tent" vision of Catholicism, extending a warm welcome to liberal voices such as his one-time academic colleague, the Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng, who was treated as something akin to the anti-Christ under John Paul. At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, this Pope has also introduced concessions to soothe traditionalists who have been campaigning for a return of the 16th-century Tridentine rite in the mass. It had been banned by modernisers in the 1960s.

Benedict has also made his own sartorial statements, reverting to long-abandoned papal accessories such as red shoes and the camauro, a red pixie hat. And he has abandoned the impenetrable tone hitherto adopted in papal pronouncements in favour of an open, accessible approach to spirituality, for example in his first (of three so far) encyclical, 2006's "God is Love". He has even managed to apologise publicly and repeatedly (to the victims of paedophile priests twice in 2008, for example, and for giving offence to Muslims in 2006 in a speech at his old university in Regensburg in Germany), not usually a hallmark of the papacy that has the power to pronounce infallibly on matters of faith and morals.

Indeed until the latest round of headlines, Benedict could have taken quiet and understated satisfaction in his record. He may have shown an occasional tendency, a hangover from his time from 1951 to 1977 as an academic theologian, to highlight what he sees as the objective truth located uniquely in Catholicism to the evident discomfiture of other church leaders with whom he is engaged in ecumenical dialogue. And he may have chosen his words clumsily when talking about condoms making the spread of Aids worse at the start of his 2009 trip to Africa. But overall he had impressed many – believers and not – as an essentially holy, thoughtful man, anxious within the doctrinal parameters of his church to do good.

Now that is all in jeopardy. The continuity pope finds himself at the forefront of a battle to salvage the reputation of his church unlike anything John Paul II ever faced. The caretaker pope is coping with a crisis that some Catholic commentators have suggested could provoke a second Reformation as a disgruntled and disgusted laity seeks a new spiritual home.

Will he come through? He is not a man to be distracted by negative headlines. He was for decades labelled Cardinal Rottweiler by liberal Catholics because he silenced their favourite radical theologians, but he carried on doing it regardless because he believed he was right. He certainly has the intellect, and, though he turns 83 this month and has a history of heart problems and strokes, he appears physically robust. The fight ahead could just see the true defining of Benedict's papacy.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of 'The 'Catholic Herald'. His book, 'The Extra Mile: A 21st Century Pilgrimage', is published this Easter by Continuum

A life in brief

Born: Joseph Ratzinger, 16 April 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, Germany. His father was a policeman, his mother a cook.

Education: Attended a local school in Bavaria, and was a reluctant recruit to the Hitler Youth. Graduated from university in Munich.

Career: Taught theology before being appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising. Was made a cardinal in 1977. Rose to be Dean of the College of Cardinals, the body of senior Catholic officials who appoint new popes. Close associate of Pope John Paul II, whom he succeeded as Pope in 2005. As well as his native German he is fluent in Italian, French, English, Spanish and Latin, and can read ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew. He is a keen pianist, with a preference for Mozart and Bach.

He says: "When Jesus was reviled he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly."

They say: "Pope Benedict has passed up a glorious opportunity to address the core issue in the clerical sexual abuse scandal: the deliberate policy of the Catholic Church at the highest levels to protect sex offenders, thereby endangering children." Maeve Lewis of the One in Four sexual abuse charity