Political Animal


February 11, 2013 10:20 AM Ratzinger’s Strange Reign

By Ed Kilgore

I’m not a Roman Catholic, so any thoughts I have about the remarkable resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, his legacy, or his successor are gratuitous if unavoidable. It is clear that his papal reign has been full of surprises. His election as Pope in 2005 seemed destined to mark the most decisive confirmation possible of the traditionalist (some would say reactionary) path of the Church laid out by his celebrated predecessor. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on the face of one of my Catholic work colleagues back in 2005 when Joseph Ratzinger walked into camera range above St. Peter’s Square; it was, for Catholic liberals in this country (and presumably elsewhere) a deeply shocking development. That it now seems likely he will be most remembered as having presided rather feebly over the full explosion of a global clerical child abuse scandal is no less surprising than his rise to the papacy in the first place.

I presume no particular knowledge over what the brief, intense process of the next papal election will produce. At National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters suggests Benedict will have little or no influence over the succession despite his living relinquishment of the papal throne since that is the prerogative the Cardinals hold onto most fiercely. And while we’ll hear the usual arguments over whether the Church should move “left” or “right,” seek “continuity” or finally choose a non-European pontiff, the unsettled legacy of the Ratzinger papacy makes such positioning talk seem anachronistic—much like the arcane rituals that Rome will again deploy in a papal election that will be co-extensive with the penitential season of Lent.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ronald on February 11, 2013 10:33 AM:

    it would be a blessing to the world for "The Church" to elevate a progressive to the Pope-hood, but chances of that happening are extrodinarily slender.
    CYA in the name of Jesus seems to be the MO for the Vatican, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

  • BookGuy on February 11, 2013 10:41 AM:

    It is highly unlikely than any other than a conservative will be chosen as both John Paul II and Benedict have used the powers of their office to appoint Cardinals who are in harmony with conservative teachings.

  • joanneinDenver on February 11, 2013 10:51 AM:

    A woman cannot be a priest, but a Nazi can be pope.

  • c u n d gulag on February 11, 2013 10:53 AM:

    Ah yes, soon the College of Cardinal Carnal Knowledge will get together, and the child-feckers will decide who their new Chief Fat-fecker is going to be.

    And until the new Pope, God's infallible messenger on Earth is chosen, and smoke comes out of the same chimney that St. Nick crawled down a little over a month ago, we'll all be saturated by the MSM with "All Pope - All Of The Time!!!"

    Otherwise known, as "Papal View," my friends.

    They can't pick the next grifting child-fecker fast enough to suit my taste

    And after JPII and BeneDICK, I don't suspect there's any Liberal left to be chosen, so get that out of your pretty little heads, ladies and gentlemen.

    No "peace and love."
    Just more lady-parts and h*mo's.

    I'm pretty sure that the guy who replaces BeneDICK will tell the world, that for all of the great things BeneDICK did, and JPII before him, they weren't "CONSERVATIVE ENOUGH!!"

    And soon, evil assclowns like Bill Donohue will making appearances on FOX's new 'WBC' channel:
    'WBC,' being short for Fox's 'Witch Burning Channel.'

  • rrk1 on February 11, 2013 11:00 AM:

    Both John-Paul II, and Ratzinger loaded up the so-called College of Cardinals with reactionaries like themselves. Why anyone thinks a progressive will emerge as the next pope from a group of antidiluvian old men still thinking it's 1600 is more than a mere mystery.

    In the Western developed world time has bypassed the Vatican and its ways. When the Archdiocese of Boston released Boston's Catholics from their obligation to attend mass yesterday (because of the blizzard) we could hear the sighs of relief 80 miles away. These guys really do still believe they have authority over the faithful when thinking Catholics long ago thumbed their nose at the ossified hierarchy, and more recently gave it the finger as the holy sexual abuse scandal destroyed what little moral authority remained.

    So we will be treated to pagentry, much media frenzy, and rituals all signifying very little.. An event made for TV.

  • ET on February 11, 2013 11:01 AM:

    I am with BookGuy. Benedict may not have any direct say over the next pope but he spent his tenure doing what he could to secure his vision of the church lasts past him by stacking the deck.

    While it would nice to have the next pope look to the future with open eyes and not cling to the past as how the church should be in perpetuity, I don't know that is what we will get. I would be more surprised if we got someone 180 degrees different.

  • boatboy_srq on February 11, 2013 11:04 AM:

    @Ronald/BookGuy/joanneinDenver: Anyone who thinks a progressive Pope is possible with the current crowd of cardinals doesn't remember what happened to John Paul I.

  • JSR on February 11, 2013 11:08 AM:

    Let's not forget the papal butler papers scandal and the papal banking scandal in the last few months as well!

  • FC on February 11, 2013 11:10 AM:

    @joanneinDenver - brilliant.

  • Josef K on February 11, 2013 11:14 AM:

    I am Roman Catholic by birth, baptism and heritage. Fortunately I woke up around age 11 at how useless the Church was for anything meaningful in my life and basically left it.

    My thoughts on Benedict XVI can be summarized as the following: he's the reincarnation of General Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF during World War I. He's a product of an insular, class-based system that promotes the incompetent to positions of command, all while completely insulating from the real-world consequences their decision making. As such, he's completely unable to grasp the modern world, technology, and the fact Mother Church doesn't have any moral authority anymore.

    Put another way, Joseph Ratzinger spent too much of his life and career cloistered away from the world in one organization or another, and as such isn't able to relate to the outside and the everyday lives of his nominal flock.

  • Steve P on February 11, 2013 11:17 AM:

    OTOH, it's a VERY ill wind, etc, and we can all look forward to the stylings of William Donohue (AKA Buster Bloodvessel) on TV every night debating people whose watches register 2013.

  • Zinsky on February 11, 2013 11:26 AM:

    Bennie the Rat was pretty much worthless on most things and presided over the largest institutional cover-up of pedophilia in human history. However, he at least acknowledged the existence of human-induced climate change and called it a mortal sin, which is more than Mr. Nobel Peace Prize who currently inhabits the Oval Office.

  • revchicoucc on February 11, 2013 11:33 AM:

    That the College of Cardinals shares a (mostly) uniform conservative theology does not mean they are all in agreement about the role of the Papacy in the life of the Church. There is a tension over the centralization of authority. Archbishop Gomez in LA, just days ago, publicly disciplined and chastized his predecessor, Cardinal Mahoney, over the way Mahoney handled the sex abuse scandal. That action represents this tension because Ratzinger / Benedict centralized this issue in Rome and then handled it badly. The location of authority -- central or dispersed -- will be an issue in the selection of a new Pope. The cardinals, archbishops, and bishops may very well divide over just how much power they want Rome to exercise over their local ministries.

    Speaking now as a liberal Protestant in a non-heirarchical denomination, I think Benedict 16 has damaged Christianity throughout the world and in all its forms. His complete lack of pastoral skills undid the positive influence of John Paul II within months, even though their theology was virtually identical. I hope the cardinals understand the depth of the damage and consider it in their deliberations. They must make a distinction between influence and power.

  • Mimikatz on February 11, 2013 11:39 AM:

    Remember the next pope is the last pope. St Malachy predicted the line of popes over six centuries ago, see http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/20116 for details. Peter Romanus is the next and last. Cue the next End of the World frenzy!

    Seriously, the Church is due for major changes, but probably won't get them. But who knows?

  • hornblower on February 11, 2013 12:06 PM:

    As a cultural catholic I have the forlorn hope that the media will treat this outdated spectacle as a news story and leave the priest commentators on the sidelines. Notice how the Vatican has been quick to point out how none of the problems of the Church have anything to do with him stepping down. Right!

  • rayspace on February 11, 2013 12:30 PM:

    This is happening too closely to the L.A. scandal to be coincidental. There is a 600-year tradition of the Church riding out ailing Popes, with the Curia in charge. Why not now? I'd love to believe that Benedict is doing this only for health reasons, but as a churchgoing Catholic, I believe in miracles, but not coincidences.

  • Rick B on February 11, 2013 12:50 PM:

    The institutional function of churches is to maintain social continuity to the past. That is also the definition of a conservative. In times of great social change - such as the present - religious institutions like the Catholic Church are the refuge of those who fear those changes, so the church will double down on its conservatism for the present. Those on the losing side of the massive social changes that are occurring worldwide will not accept any other position from the Catholic Church.

    Since the Cardinals are a self-selecting (very conservative) hierarchy running the institution they will respond to the fear of change and reject any effort to elevate a progressive to the Papacy. That is simply an expression of the core nature of the Church.

    The inherent conflict between the teachings that Christians should emulate Christ (who was by his nature - as the Church itself teaches - highly progressive) simply cannot be resolved institutionally other than by the College of Cardinals retreating to the conservative nature of the institution.

    I am agreeing with the posters above, but this is the institutional mechanism that will ensure that the Church gets another conservative Pope. It really doesn't help the Progressive cause that the current Pope will be observing the process and judging the actions of the Cardinals that he appointed.

    The only possible way to get a Progressive Pope will be for the inevitably conservative individual they choose to suddenly have a crisis of conscience and change his basic nature after taking office.

    @Josef K above describes Benedict XVI perfectly. The current Pope was chosen for exactly the characteristic Josef describes. The institution of the Church is biased to continue that same decision process by its very nature as the institutional source of social continuity.

    For individuals who want to know the direction Christianity has to take I strongly suggest reading John Shelby Spong's excellent book A New Christianity for a New World. Bishop Spong is a retired Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop who describes the failure of modern Christianity to relate to today's world. His first chapter totally refutes "Fundamentalist" christianity, the refuge of the fearful.

    @revchicoucc - excellent informative post, but a change in the churches' administration will not make it inherently less conservative.

    @mimikatz - As usual, another interesting and fun post. We'll simply have to hope the College of Cardinals appoints someone with a conscience who can intellectually sustain a crisis of conscience in the future. At some point the pressures of changing society will make that inevitable, but there is always the question of how many of us alive today will live to see it happen.

  • Rick B on February 11, 2013 1:08 PM:


    Your comment makes me suspect that this is an effort by Benedict to maintain the centralized control the Pope currently has over the Catholic Church. By resigning now he can influence the choice of his successor and possibly prevent the Church from fragmenting into the more independent Bishoprics that is its historical nature.

    Right now it appears to me as an outsider that the Catholic Church worldwide consists of an expanding rural conservative church attempting and failing to enforce conservative traditional ideas of morality on its mostly breakaway modern industrial nations. Distributing more power to the bishops is a reasonable administrative way of dealing with this conundrum.

    I don't see Benedict as approving decentralizing power in the worldwide church.

  • Rick B on February 11, 2013 1:13 PM:

    I'll try the link from above again. A New Christianity for a New World. This should be a simple clickable link.

  • shivas on February 11, 2013 1:16 PM:

    Moving in with cloistered nuns, hmmm, I wonder if there are 72 of them. :)

  • Andy Olsen on February 11, 2013 1:47 PM:

    I find it pretty sad that this Pope, in his former role as Cardinal and Pope John Paul's "disciplinarian" has stated as a matter of Church policy that the Church is above the law when it comes to child sexual abuse.

    What's sad is that statement was greeted with a yawn, and barely reported. So we, as a society, pretty much accept the idea that being in the Catholic hierarchy means you can be above the rule of law.

    I am also a non-Catholic. Given the Catholic Church continually seeks to use secular government to force their religious doctrine on me and others, I feel very free to comment.

    "It orders that 'preliminary investigations' into any claims of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger's office, which has the option of referring them back to private tribunals in which the 'functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests'.

    'Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,' Ratzinger's letter concludes. Breaching the pontifical secret at any time while the 10-year jurisdiction order is operating carries penalties, including the threat of excommunication. "

    "The Ratzinger letter was co-signed by Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone who gave an interview two years ago in which he hinted at the church's opposition to allowing outside agencies to investigate abuse claims.

    'In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offence of paedophilia is unfounded,' Bertone said. "


  • schtick on February 11, 2013 2:01 PM:

    I'm not trying to stick up for Rat the Pope, but the Catholic sexual scandal has been going on and covered up for years, if not ages.

    joanneinDenver on February 11, 2013 10:51 AM:

    You nailed it. Conservatism at its best. LOL

  • cmdicely on February 11, 2013 2:24 PM:

    This is happening too closely to the L.A. scandal to be coincidental.

    There have been events on that scale connected with the abuse scandals non-stop since before Benedict XVI was elected. While the whole ongoing issue is probably a factor (its certainly one of the reasons there is more attention on Church administration, and one of the reasons the disunity in the Curia is a visible problem; its also one of the reasons that, PR issues aside, there's substantive need for a hand on the administrative wheel.)

    There is a 600-year tradition of the Church riding out ailing Popes, with the Curia in charge. Why not now?

    Perhaps because the cracks of been so bad within the Curia that its been evident and widely reported in the world media (even in outlets that aren't obsessed with the inner workings of the Catholic Church). From a purely institutional point of view, I think its pretty obvious that the current situation is untenable.

    I'd love to believe that Benedict is doing this only for health reasons

    I think "only for health reasons" is a misrepresentation even of the official reasons, which are that Benedict XVI his health and age make him unable to do what the office requires. That isn't just about health, its also about the present requirements of the office.

  • Blue Girl on February 11, 2013 2:52 PM:

    I don't really believe in coincidences, and the first papal resignation in 600 years happening just minutes after the story about Mahoney raiding a cemetery fund to pay off victims.


  • Zorro on February 11, 2013 3:42 PM:

    Speaking as a non-Catholic, they can pick whoever they bloody well please as the next Pope, it makes precious little difference to me. But, contrary to popular opinion, there was a *huge* difference between John Paul II and Benedict XVI. During WWII, the former Karol Wotyla was known to have helped many Polish Jews escape from the Nazis; Joseph Ratzinger, at the same time, was a member of the Hitler Youth.

    I will stipulate that, at that time, membership in the Hitler Youth was all but compulsory for a young German boy. Nevertheless, the contrast could hardly be more stark.


  • H-Bob on February 11, 2013 3:47 PM:

    "having presided rather feebly over the full explosion of a global clerical child abuse scandal" -- he increased the explosion by decreeing that disclosing child molesting priests to secular authorities was a greater sin than the child molestation !

  • Josef K on February 11, 2013 4:15 PM:

    From H-Bob at 3:47 PM:

    he increased the explosion by decreeing that disclosing child molesting priests to secular authorities was a greater sin than the child molestation

    Be fair, H-Bob, by his lights Mother Church can do no wrong, and thus anything that calls that into question is coming directly from the fallen one himself.

    As I said earlier, Joseph Ratzinger has led a very sheltered life, even if he doesn't recognize it as such, and so isn't emotionally or mentally equipt to deal with stuff like this. Its probably just as well he's on his way out. The Vatican isn't likely going to stand up to much more scrutiny without being declared a criminal enterprise.

  • Northzax on February 11, 2013 6:51 PM:

    And let's not forget, Cardinals Law and Mahoney, shamed as they are (and in Law's case very close to a fugitive) are electors for the new pope. You can be stripped of everything but your right to vote for a new pope.

  • Northzax on February 11, 2013 6:58 PM:

    My apologies, I just realized Law is 81, and therefore ineligible. So that's something.

  • Demata on February 13, 2013 11:28 AM:

    A fact that has generated alarm in the financial world and in the European North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as “the deliberate opacity, and insisted sought by IOR can be a window of opportunity for criminal operations of all kinds, with the risk – reported in its letter from Cardinal Nicora – resulting in a blow to the reputation of the Holy See. “


  • Demata on February 13, 2013 11:35 AM:

    A fact that has generated alarm in the financial world and in the European North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as “the deliberate opacity, and insisted sought by IOR can be a window of opportunity for criminal operations of all kinds, with the risk – reported in its letter from Cardinal Nicora – resulting in a blow to the reputation of the Holy See. “


  • Pedro Sancta on February 28, 2013 11:15 PM:

    Don't be fooled. This modernist "pope" was nothing more than a wolf, dressed by Satan, in white cotton. He might look helpless on the outside. He is malicious on the inside. He knew exactly what was going on. He knew every incident of priestly accusations. He knew them better than anyone else in the Roman Catholic Church. He could have stopped it. He did nothing. He did worse than nothing. He protected the guilty manipulators and sentenced the innocent helpless. This pope will rot in hell for perpetuating those sins against children. Yes. He will rot in hell. For eternity. Yes, Eternity. This disciple of Satan. This wolf. This criminal.