A Pope’s retirement or confinement?

Author: Barrett Rainey

Like most of us, I was surprised when Benedict XVI decided to give up the big chair at the head of the Catholic table for – when compared to most others who’ve held the job – “early” retirement. Over the centuries, many Popes held on long past their abilities to fulfill the demanding duties.

Benedict said factors of deteriorating physical and mental health helped make his decision at this time. I believe that was part of it – especially since I’m a fellow senior – a few years younger – who’s already noted slower reaction times, aching joints and bouts of forgetfulness.

Beneath the cloak of secrecy that surrounds top officialdom of the Catholic Church, much of what goes on there is hidden from the rest of us mortals. When elected, Benedict said he wanted more transparency in Vatican affairs. Based on how little public access to Vatican affairs has changed in eight years, my guess is he found that goal more difficult to achieve than he’d imagined. Though a long-time participant in top-level matters of the Church – certainly experienced in its operation – he likely had a similar reaction American politicians have after being elected President. To really know the job, you have to be one.

But now it seems there may be more to the retirement of Cardinal Ratzinger than the infirmities of old age. Serving in many offices of Catholic leadership, he achieved some things. But he’ll fade into retirement and into the history of Catholicism a flawed personality. For him, the afterglow will be tainted because of something he didn’t do. When he should have.

The job he held when elected Pope was head of the Office of Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. Since the Inquisition centuries ago, that office has existed solely to be the doctrinal watchdog of the Catholic Church. As the name implies, all matters of doctrinal enforcement reside there. And the word “enforcement” is not too strong when referring to centuries of presiding over – and enforcing – the laws of Catholicism.

When Cardinal Ratzinger had the job, he faced many difficult situations – most of which were handled with authority. Most. Not all. During his tenure, the Church faced the outbreak of hundreds and hundreds of cases of sexual abuse within the priesthood. It had been rumored for years. Many, many years. But Ratzinger was appointed to the post at a time when the desk was stacked high with evidence. Proof abounded from America, Ireland, England, France, Germany and elsewhere. Even his own home diocese in Bavaria. Sexual abuse was no longer just “talk” – it was widespread, proven, horrible – and fact.

Also well-documented fact: Ratzinger not only personally knew of such cases, he actually participated in moving guilty priests from one church – or one diocese – or even one county – to another. And he signed off on transfers made by other Cardinals dealing with pedophile priests. He had the files. He had testimony. He had court findings. He knew. He could’ve undertaken major investigations to root out perpetrators and punish. But acting on sexual abuse issues to any extent? There’s no evidence he did. In fact, evidence exists that he knew and did not act forcefully.

Belying the news the Pope just suddenly “decided it was time to retire” as his announcement said, is the fact that a new residence – just for him in his retirement years – was begun at Castel Gandolfo nearly a year ago. It’s on the grounds of the Pope’s summer vacation residence and is considered, under Italian law, to be part of the Vatican. Its own country. Fully private.

Now, this week, Reuters News Agency in Italy is reporting why that’s important. Quoting what it calls a “high Vatican official,” Reuters says spending the rest of his life on Vatican property “will guarantee security and privacy” for Benedict. The importance, according to the unnamed official, is he’ll be legally untouchable in the many sexual abuse investigations and court cases now being conducted all over the world. The rest of his life will be spent under the legal protection of the Vatican.

Cardinal Ratzinger worked his way up to the College of Cardinals over a long and distinguished career. He then conducted the office of Pope with dignity, honest labor and collegiality. But his term was short and has not been marked with signature accomplishment as much as some of his recent predecessors. Maybe – after John Paul II who died in 2005 – the Papacy needed a period of calm.

But as Cardinal Ratzinger – as head of the doctrinal watchdog of all things Catholic – he had an opportunity to make church history in the performance of his duties. And he did not. For that, he now requires Church protection from the law for the rest of his earthly life. Castel Gandolfo will be a prison – a confinement. Comfortable, yes. But confinement nonetheless.

Comments are closed.