Edge of reason: The lonely reign of Benedict XVI

The authoritarian leader of the world's Catholics promised to restore the purity of his church. So why is it still plagued by scandal upon scandal? Peter Popham reports

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Of all the countries Pope Benedict XVI is visiting this year – including Malta, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain – Britain, which he visits in September, is the one in the greatest moral difficulty from his perspective: a citadel of wild-eyed relativism, beset by all the ills which the Sixties incubated and which the Catholic Church here, in the Vatican's view, has done little to combat.

Look at the evidence: we have women vicars, openly gay Cabinet ministers, the minaret of a mosque looming over Regent's Park. Multi-culturalism has supplanted Christianity as the religion of choice; hardly anyone goes to church any more; a Christian tradition going back 1,500 years is discarded as immigrants belonging to every faith and none pour in. In our adoration of pop stars we have produced a new reign of idolatry. Benedict's late boss, whose doctrinal conservatism was lightened by a Bohemian theatrical streak, happily sat through a Bob Dylan concert and quoted the singer's lyrics in his subsequent sermon; on another occasion the current Pope's predecessor went so far as to try on Bono's shades. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict's name before he was Pope), obliged to accompany his boss, shook his head sadly over such lapses. These "stars of the young", he later wrote, "had a message completely different from that to which the Pope was committed. There was reason to be sceptical – which I was, and in a certain sense still am – to doubt whether it was really right to involve 'prophets' of this type." Pop music, he said in 1986, was "a vehicle of anti-religion".

Of course, it is normal for a Pope to take the moral high ground: what is the point of him if he doesn't? He may temper justice with mercy, but we expect him to lay down the law. Which is why the tide of sleaze engulfing the Church over recent weeks, most of it related to accusations of priestly paedophilia, has Vatican-watchers worried.

When he was crowned Pope nearly five years ago, Benedict promised to clean up the Church. He would not be a showman Pope like John Paul II, he would not flog himself around the world addressing huge stadiums. The Church under his guidance would not have expansiveness as its goal, but purification. It might be a smaller, tighter institution but it would be clean, consistent, and true to its word.

But events of recent weeks suggest that corruption is rooted close to its heart. A wealthy Italian industrialist called Angelo Balducci had been honoured by the Vatican as a gentiluomo del Papa, a "gentleman of the Pope", but then in charges that hit the headlines in Italy last month he was put under investigation for allegedly raking in money from sleazy building tenders. Separately, a member of the Vatican choir claims he was paid to find gay partners for Balducci. Despite the Church's draconian stand on homosexuality, the Vatican has long been known as a gay hot house, and insiders believe that Benedict's elevation changed nothing.

Meanwhile scandals continue to rain down on the Church from abroad. Shortly after Benedict condemned the "heinous acts" of paedophilia among priests in Ireland, accusations of similar acts surfaced in the famous choir of Regensburg, in Bavaria, of which the Pope's brother Georg was director while Joseph Ratzinger was a professor at the university (Georg claims no knowledge of any such abuse during his time there). Still more lurid are the accusations levelled at Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who died in 2008 aged 87. Back in the 1990s when Maciel was accused of by numerous young priests of abusing them sexually, Ratzinger, who, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had the charge of disciplining him. Maciel resigned in 2005, and was required to live a life of prayer and penitence, but that was the extent of his punishment. In recent weeks, however, a whole new slew of accusations has been made: two of Maciel's illegitimate sons have claimed that their priestly father raped them repeatedly from the age of seven upwards; they have demanded $26m (£17m) from the Order (which has not denied the charges) in compensation.

Some of these cases concern events that happened decades ago, but some involve the Church today: nothing profound, it seems, has changed. And that is of grave importance to Benedict and his legacy. Joseph Ratzinger's life falls neatly into two parts. In the first, he was a liberal reformer, energetically committed to bringing the Catholic Church into the modern world; in the second, which began around 1968, he rejected all that and became a counter-revolutionary warrior, dedicated to liberating the Church from trendy nonsense and restoring the purity which he saw the reform movement as having polluted. As such, his ardour has never flagged. But if his reign as Pope is to have any positive meaning, it will because he leaves the Church leaner, perhaps, less popular, less interested in capturing the world's imagination, but more sure of what it believes in, preaching the Gospel clearly and with confidence. But how can that be with the sleaze lapping at the gates?

*****

For centuries, the Catholic Church tried to carry on as though the modern world did not really exist. Galileo's imprisonment and the denial of the truths elucidated by the likes of Darwin were all part of that compulsion. And when the unification of Italy liquidated the Church's secular power and drove it in upon itself in the few thousand square metres of the Vatican City, something of the sort happened intellectually too. The vast church with its thousands of bishops and millions of believers became a little room, crammed with musty certainties, and with the windows blacked out.

Then in 1958 a fat, aged cardinal called Angelo Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, was elected Pope following the death of Pius XII. He was not expected to live long – and he didn't, dying a mere five years later – nor to do much. His was expected to be a holding operation after the 19-year reign of his predecessor, a moment for the Church to stand still and reflect. Instead the man known as the sweetest Pope who ever lived instigated a revolution.

It didn't look or sound like a revolution, and Roncalli himself died in the middle of it. But the Second Vatican Council, attended by 2,800 bishops from around the world in four sessions from 1962 to 1965, turned out to be the most defining event in Christendom since the Reformation. While the Church had been huddled in its blacked-out room, muttering Latin prayers, the world outside had changed. Roncalli, Pope John XXIII as he became, was an unusual prelate in that he was not afraid of this new world, and at the Council the Church he threw open the windows and tried to find a place for it in what the world had become. The Council gave lay people a far more important role in the Church's life, offered accommodation to other Churches by declining to insist that the Catholic Church was the only true one, and counterbalanced the stress on the Pope's primacy by emphasising the principle of "collegiality", giving bishops a bigger say in deciding the Church's direction. It opened the Catholic Church to dialogue with other faiths, and spoke of "working with all men towards the establishment of a world that is more human". It repudiated the age-old notion that the Jews were to blame for the death of Christ, and declared that "the human person has a right to religious liberty". Summing up the Council's work, Cardinal Montini, six months before he became Pope Paul VI, said, "The Church is looking for itself...The Church is also looking for the world,...by engaging in dialogue with the world, interpreting the needs of the society in which it is working and observing the defects, the necessities, the sufferings and the hopes."

The Church, in other words, was seeking to regain the central position in society that it had enjoyed in Europe and beyond for centuries – without reclaiming its former unique authority. And in this remarkable enterprise, a young, dynamic theologian called Joseph Ratzinger, an adviser to the German bishops, was central. He "made anyone's short list of the most important theologians" at the Council, according to Vatican expert John Allen. He and his fellow scholars "broke through...into an open country of greater theological freedom," according to a German expert. He was committed to the Council's goals: a man who was a young seminarian at the Council said Ratzinger "inserted himself energetically for a renewed vision of the Church". Yet within two or three years of the end of the Council, he had executed a 180-degree turn. In 1966, Ratzinger's rapid rise through academia culminated in his appointment to Germany's top theological faculty at the University of Tübingen. But soon afterwards Tübingen became the epicentre for Germany's version of the French tumult of 1968. Political radicalism was on the rampage – and, to his acute discomfort, Ratzinger discovered that the theological faculty became, as he put it, "the real ideological centre" of the march towards Marxism. On the campus, the Protestant Students' Union handed out flyers asking rhetorically, "What is Jesus's cross but the expression of a sado-masochistic glorification of pain? ... The New Testament is a document of inhumanity, a large-scale deception of the masses." Teachers who failed to endorse Marxism were considered timid petty-bourgeois and subjected to barracking and sit-ins.

"I never had difficulties with students," Ratzinger insisted many years later, but the liberal Swiss theologian who had appointed him, Hans Küng (whom the born-again, hard-line Ratzinger was later to purge) said that radical students targeted the lectures given by both him and his protégé. "They came in and occupied the pulpits," he recalled. "Even for a strong personality like me this was unpleasant. For someone timid like Ratzinger it was horrifying."

Vatican II had seen the Church move to embrace the modern world in all its complexity – but for Ratzinger, the events of 1968 proved that the only result would be the Church being suffocated, trampled and abused. It risked, he later wrote, being instrumentalised "by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel... The abuse of the faith had to be resisted... Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity." Ratzinger chose to retain his integrity by giving up being progressive – and giving up also his cherished place at Tübingen and moving to a new and obscure university in Regensburg.

Instead of trying to embrace the modern world, the Church, in Ratzinger's new view, had to go the other way entirely: to cleave to traditional truth, purge false prophets, bear witness to the faith of the fathers despite the taunts and provocations of the fashionable. And to stand firm. In essence, that is what Joseph Ratzinger has been doing ever since.

*****

"He who goes into the conclave a Pope comes out a cardinal" runs the Roman proverb, but sometimes favourites do win. Experts had written off Cardinal Ratzinger's chances of succeeding his long-term boss, John Paul II, as Pope because he was too close to the ancien régime, too old at 78, and was another non-Italian European when the time was ripe for a Latin American or even an African or an Asian. There was also the fact that Karol Wojtyla was fabulously charismatic – and no one had ever claimed charisma for Ratzinger. The Polish Pope, for all his conservatism, was sympathetic and charming and expansive – again, the polar opposite of the short, shy, prim, vengeful man who had been his theologian-at-arms and enforcer of the faith since 1981.

But in the days following John Paul II's death there was a sea change. Ratzinger swept all before him. He knew and spoke to all the cardinals; he proved he had the energy and desire for the top job. And in a fiery speech on the eve of the conclave, he delivered a withering denunciation of scepticism, secularism and relativism.

"In recent decades, the little boat of thought of many Christians has been...thrown from one extreme to another," he said, "from Marxism to liberalism...from atheism to a vague religious mysticism... New sects are born every day. To have a clear faith is often to be labelled a fundamentalist." All that, he said, was what the Church now had to fight. He was elected in a mere four ballots.

For millions of liberals in the Church who had desperately hoped, after nearly three decades of conservatism, for a change of direction – for a return to the spirit of Vatican II –it was a deeply dispiriting result. "Electing Ratzinger after John Paul," an American Catholic said to me in St Peter's Square immediately after Ratzinger came out on the balcony to acknowledge the crowd, "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush." And in the five years since then, Benedict XVI has run true to form.

There have been twinges and vague hints of a softening of the hard line, but they have proved as ephemeral as the smoke pouring out of the Vatican's chimney. Instead what we have seen – and what no one would have predicted from this brilliant scholar and careful, scheming politician – is a long succession of pontifical gaffes. The most celebrated one came during the speech he gave in 2006 at his old university in Regensburg, a typically dense, closely argued lecture, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor saying, "Show me what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."

The words provoked a wave of Muslim rage and, in the view of some Vatican-watchers, exploded decades of careful bridge-building by his predecessor. Throughout the Muslim world, wrote Marco Politi in La Repubblica, "John Paul II preached the common faith in one God of the sons of Abraham ... and the common duty of Jews, Christians and Muslims in favour of peace and justice." But the new Pope had ruptured that strategy.

Many such blunders followed. He went to Africa and said that condoms were not the solution to the AIDS epidemic but could make matters worse. He stood in Istanbul's Blue Mosque, praying shoulder to shoulder with its Imam, then denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue. He refused to sign a UN declaration on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled. He went to Brazil and denied that the indigenous people had had the alien religion forced on them, but said rather that they had unconsciously desired it. He welcomed the schismatics of the Society of St Pius X back into the Church – only discovering afterwards that one of the society's illegally created bishops, Richard Williamson, denied the truth of the Holocaust.

There is a common thread running through all such howlers: ever since those ugly encounters on the campus of Tübingen in 1968, Ratzinger has seen both himself and his faith as cornered, besieged, menaced and undermined, by its out-and-out enemies, but also by its declared friends in secular society, and those trimmers and time-servers "who still passed themselves off as believers when this was useful", as Ratzinger wrote in 1997. In stark contrast to the expansiveness of Vatican II, and the willingness of John Paul II to share ideas with Buddhists and listen to Bob Dylan, it is a paranoid vision, in which the Church and its Pope are the victims of history and must be constantly on their guard, constantly rebuffing those false friends who would lay traps for them.

It is perhaps with regard to the Jews that this comes out most clearly. In 2000, John Paul II, on what he named The Day of Pardon, apologised for the Church's sins against Jews down the centuries; later he made a similar declaration at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, and inserted a prayer of penitence in Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. When Benedict visited Auschwitz in 2006, therefore, he seemed to be treading in his late boss's footsteps. But, as Jewish commentators were quick to point out, there was a notable difference. True, Benedict spoke of "this place of horror", where "unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man".

But the only victims whom he mentioned by name were Christians; and this supposedly involuntary member of the Hitler Youth appeared to exculpate ordinary Germans of any complicity in the death camps: Auschwitz came about, he said, because "a ring of criminals rose to power ... our people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power".

Why did the Nazis want to exterminate the Jews? Benedict used this occasion – when the world was waiting to hear in his words an echo of John Paul's penitence – to explain his own Holocaust theory: it was because "deep down, those vicious criminals wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who...laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind...By destroying Israel...they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith."

Christianity for Benedict XVI is the victim par excellence of the horrible modern world. So even when the Nazis massacred Jews, what they were really doing, "deep down", was massacring Christianity. For observers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, there was something pathological going on here: this former Nazi was incapable of going down on his knees and begging forgiveness for what was done at Auschwitz – done to those of a different faith – in his name, by his democratically elected leaders. Instead he used the occasion to elbow aside the Jews and assert that Christianity had been the Nazis' real victim.

Being Pope is a lonely job. Pope Paul VI wrote in a private note: "It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome....to suffer alone....Me and God." Benedict must feel the same way. And in his raptures of lonely suffering, he has succeeded in turning St Peter's into an enormous bunker.

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