Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Religion > At the End of the Pope: Benedict XVI and the Pontificate of Modernity

At the End of the Pope: Benedict XVI and the Pontificate of Modernity

At the time that this post was published, the Catholic Church had just become, if only briefly, a captainless vessel. The sitting Pope Benedict XVI (the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) had announced on February 11th that he would resign as the head of the Catholic Church effective at the end of the month (call it a holy two-weeks’ notice). As the College of Cardinals assembles for a Conclave to elect one from amongst their august selves to the post of the 266th Vicar of Christ (with the swing vote belonging, in hoary doctrinal tradition, to none other than the Holy Spirit), there have already been numerous considerations, analyses, and accountings of the legacy and meaning of Benedict’s brief papacy, which officially ended today.

Benedict XVI’s helicopter departs Vatican City

Though I can hardly claim to be qualified to assess the pontificate of the outgoing Bishop of Rome in the company of career Vaticanologists (they’re like vulcanologists, only they study celibate old men instead of upswelling magma), there is something of interest in the conclusion of Benedict’s reign at the top of the rapidly ossifying ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ratzinger, upon assumption of the office, was clear about conceiving his time at the wheel of the Popemobile as being a transitional phase after the long and popular papacy of John Paul II. A pinched, detail-oriented German who was the oldest Pope to be elected in 250 years and formerly headed the Vatican’s successor office to the Inquisition, Benedict had neither the inclination nor the evident ability to match his predecessor’s world-spanning celebrity and outreach to the faithful and the unfaithful alike (although he was one of the unseen architects of that opening to the world, ironically enough). That the Church pulled back into itself, focusing on conservative countermeasures to the relative openness of past decades since the Second Vatican Council, was perhaps characteristic of its leader. That this leader spent most of his time wearing the big hat in the throes of the morally-damaging, unresolvable worldwide Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, and who displayed an unwillingness to move the goalposts of justice on the manner very far at all, can be attributed similarly to his rule by inertia.

Indeed, there was something substantially contemporary about the papacy of Benedict XVI, a certain current character dancing above the immovable bedrock of millenia of clerical traditionalism and even the open derision for secular modernity that he often expressed. John Paul II, himself not much more liberal than his successor in many key push-button matters of public Catholic doctrine like ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or birth control, nonetheless projected through his status as the first multimedia Pope the dominant characteristics of the waning decades of the century that his papacy just outlasted. As a dissident figure of an oppressed people who resisted and was a vocal opponent of dictatorial tyranny and lived to bask in the glow of the collapse of such regimes and replacement by a species of globalized, liberalized capitalist prosperity, John Paul II’s papacy was a compressed narrative of the 20th Century. That his shimmering coda of mass adulation (mixed with the begrudging admiration of even his Church’s most vocal critics) was darkly-lined by the spreading sex abuse scandal dovetailed with the tonal mix of anxiety, instability, and inequality of power that has thus far swallowed the 21st Century.

Benedict’s papacy saw a distinct uptick of these darkening feelings, along with a renewed conservative emphasis. Where John Paul II turned his moral-rhetorical megaphone at actual dictators and their oppressive systems (to oft-inflated but undeniably existing effect), Benedict XVI turned his ire, like many a foppish “conservative intellectual”, at the inherently dubious “dictatorship of relativism”. It is never terribly convincing when the acolyte of an institution whose moral and temporal authority is slipping further and further away by the hour blames every ill of the past brace of centuries upon the subjective, self-interested refusal of people around the world to do what he and his fellow Catholic theologians say they should. If our young century has been very much defined by the stubborn firmness of those looking to preserve their prized imbalance of power, wealth, and influence, then the inability of Benedict to keep his institution from backsliding is a rare instance of that act of preservation failing.

And yet Benedict’s Church was defined not only by these anti-modern factors but also by a distinct increase in the corporatization of the Vatican, a consolidation of its activities, messages, and public image into a well-oiled transnational company that should have been expected under the influence of a longtime clerical bureaucrat. But his departing act, his wilful resignation from the Papacy and assumption of the peculiarly academic title of Pope Emeritus, is the most modern and business-world-ish element of his pontificate.

Like my hat? ‘Twas my cat. Evening wear: Vampire bat!

The last Pope to vacate the office while living was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated quite against his will so that the Antipope at Avignon could unite the Catholic Church and end the Western Schism (you did not need to know that, but I just really wanted an excuse to write the words “Antipope” and “schism”, as well as link to the contemporaneous but only tangentially related First Defenestration of Prague). No Pope has abdicated entirely willingly since the 13th Century, when Celestine V decided he’d really much rather live in a cave than in the Vatican, thank you very much. But then Benedict XVI did not abdicate, he resigned, like a businessman might.

Though I’m not sure there is as much sinister, hidden intent in this development in papal history as Andrew Sullivan thinks there is (Sully, like many with libertarian leanings, has a tendency to see nefarious institutional collusion almost everywhere), there is something odd and unrevealed about Benedict’s choice to become Ratzinger again. Stated health concerns aside (I have joked that he should have said he wanted to spend more time with his family, har har), perhaps the outgoing Pope preferred influencing the progression of the Church’s glacially-slow evolution from behind the curtain rather than from the dais of St. Peter’s as the Vicar of Christ himself. In a global culture so often dazzled by flashy celebrity (and the Pope, geriatric though the role may inherently be, is as flashy and prominent as religious celebrity gets), the gloved hand that manipulates the tiller is that much more easily overlooked. Ratzinger has seriously influenced the course of the Catholic Church, for good and for ill, for 50+ years. If today marked his retirement, it remains to be seen how retired he will be, even when a new Pope emerges from the Conclave.

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