At eight o’clock this evening, Benedict XVI will climb aboard a helicopter and leave the Vatican for the last time as Pope. His legacy is a paradoxical one. Theologically conservative and institutionally authoritarian, he nonetheless demonstrated a pastoral sensitivity and a willingness to engage with a world which is increasingly secular, at least in Europe and the US. Ultimately, history may remember him for his resignation – an act which redefines the papacy as a job, rather than a vocation. And future popes who are not up to the job will come under pressure to retire. His final act may, therefore, turn out to be the most modernising of all.
Benedict’s papacy has been marred by the scandal that originated in clerical sexual abuse but culminated in systematic institutional cover-up. What was intended to protect the Church’s reputation undermined its moral authority. The departing Pope has been firmer in dealing with abusers than is generally supposed. But he has done it behind closed doors, thereby reinforcing the impression that the Church cares more about self-preservation than it does about promulgating the values of the gospel. If he was a new broom, he swept in the old ways.
In his fight against the Vatican’s entrenched bureaucracy, Benedict XVI retires defeated. It became clear that he had been outmanoeuvred five years ago, when he was persuaded by Rome’s vested interests to move the reforming Archbishop Viganò – who was clamping down on waste and corruption – and pack him off as papal ambassador to the US. More recently, although the Vatileaks scandal was presented by the Church as simply a staff member on the make, it emerged in court that the Pope’s butler passed secret papers to a journalist out of concern that underlings were pulling the wool over the pontiff’s eyes.
Many believe that Benedict decided on his shock resignation on the day that three cardinals presented him with their report into the Vatileaks affair. It is said to reveal extensive Vatican infighting, with one faction reportedly a gay mafia of high-ranking officials involved in sex romps in a sauna. Certainly, the Pope has locked the dossier in his safe with instructions that it is for the eyes of the next pontiff only.
The new pope will not be the liberal many progressive Catholics desire. The 115 voting cardinals are a gerontocracy. They have earned their places by dint of long service to an institution whose core values are hierarchy and orthodoxy. They will not vote for a candidate likely to overturn Church teaching on the interwoven doctrines of contraception, abortion and sexuality. A Church that does not yet even treat women as equals is far away, indeed, from supporting marriage between two men.
Yet there will still be key differences between the contenders. Some have more open attitudes to other Christians, Muslims and Jews. A pope from Africa or Asia might reinforce the Church’s commitment in the fight against global poverty. Some candidates will reinforce Rome’s siege mentality against secular values; others will institute a wider conversation. There will be those who want a smaller, purer Church, and others seeking a more inclusive end to the polarisation of traditionalists and progressives within the laity.
What is essential, though, is that the next pope is committed both to reforming the dysfunctional Vatican civil service and to creating greater transparency in its workings. And that will require not merely commitment but also a track record of delivery in diocesan administration. Without effective change to Rome’s internal machinery, the next pope – whatever his intentions – will be hamstrung by its self-serving bureaucracy.