In the twelve days since Benedict XVI announced his retirement, I‚Äôve been wondering whether the Church of Rome might not have been better served‚ÄĒat least from the point of view of progressive Catholics‚ÄĒby the Pope keeping his job and drawing an eventual last breath, in what he would call God‚Äôs time, on Peter‚Äôs throne. It would have released those Catholics from the strictures of empathy, admiration, and grueling patience his voluntary leaving seems to have placed upon them. (St. Peter, by the way, was married.)
The response has been uncharacteristically kind. And how could it not be, at the shock of such eloquent and simple humility coming from the man who, for the past thirty-two years, enforced and eventually led the doctrinal retreat into the Middle Ages begun by his predecessor.
There have been endless comparisons between the style of Benedict‚Äôs departure and that of John Paul II, in 2005; they are almost comically stereotypic: Pope John Paul II‚Äôs ardent, emotional, and pointedly public ecce-homo calvary through disease, senility, and incapacity to death; and Benedict‚Äôs rational, considered decision, clearing the way for a like-minded successor who would presumably restore obedience and fealty to a Church whose authority, like his own, was waning. ‚ÄúFor the good of the Church,‚ÄĚ is how Benedict described his resignation. It may be that, however weakened, Benedict was crafty.
There have been many theories, though few, to my knowledge, say that Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was pushed into retirement, let alone that those honest, eloquent words about no longer possessing the quality of mind and body that the papacy requires had been scripted for him. And with good reason: knowing Benedict, he probably pushed himself. Today, the average age of the Church‚Äôs cardinals, who will convene next week to begin considering candidates for the next pope, is seventy-two, and those who are under eighty‚ÄĒthe only ones eligible to actually cast ballots in a papal conclave‚ÄĒwere all appointed by John Paul II or, more often than not, by Benedict XVI.
So it‚Äôs safe to say that the College of Cardinals has been stacked to ensure that their linea gotica continues moving backward. And never mind that the Church has been losing both priests and nuns because of a doctrine of celibacy that began not in the Gospels but in the fourth century (and was largely ignored until much later); because of a doctrine of infallibility that in fact only became canonic in 1870; and because of an institutionalized misogyny that has not only kept women from the priesthood but sends them to Hell if they drop by Planned Parenthood for a morning-after pill, or even if, like those valiant American ‚Äúnuns on the bus,‚ÄĚ they drive off without permission to minister to the poor. The list goes on.
A new face, with a new infallibility chakra under his papal hat, may be the Church‚Äôs last best hope for what is now called ‚Äúputting the past behind us‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ‚Äúthe past,‚ÄĚ in this case, including decades of rampant, officially closeted pedophilia, involving thousands of priests preying on tens of thousands of children‚ÄĒand continuing its long march backward. [More]