Stephen McGinty: Benedict’s unlikely revolution

POPE Francis has transformed the reputation of the Catholic Church in the past year – but only because his heavily criticised predecessor was wise enough to step down, writes Stephen McGinty

Pope Francis waves to the crowds at his inauguration mass last year. Picture: Getty

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation on 11 February last year my initial reaction was that this was a selfish act cloaked in the mantle of selflessness.

The Latin term: cui bono? sprung to mind: “to whose benefit?” The first beneficiary was arguably Pope Benedict, who granted to himself a gift denied to all previous Popes: retirement. At the time it was stated that he was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII 600 years ago, but previous Popes had been forced to step down at the sharpened point of a halberd and by massed armies, not because they wished to spend more time with their books and Steinway.

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What Benedict did was unprecedented and, I thought, highly risky. The idea of two Popes in the Vatican was surely a recipe for disaster. Better, I thought, that Benedict retire to a monastery in his native Germany. Or stay in post.

One year later, has my opinion changed? Well, no and yes. I still think Benedict acted in a manner for which he was the principal beneficiary. The rising scandal of clerical abuse, the corruption of the Vatican Bank, the snake pit of curial infighting was, at a stroke, removed from his plate as soon as he uttered those few words of Latin.

But in taking that momentous step out of the spotlight he has, I think, performed the greatest service to the Catholic Church of any Pope for centuries. Only he could launch such a revolution – for that is what it has been. Only a figure so associated with Catholic orthodoxy could authorise future popes to step down when they feel their work is done, or their body too weak to continue.

If Pope John Paul II perceived his role as akin to that of Christ nailed to the Cross waiting patiently for deliverance, Benedict XVI saw himself as entombed in the Vatican for as long as he could, but with God’s blessing to roll away the boulder when he was no longer effective or able. Yet Benedict’s revolutionary act has come at a personal cost, one I’m sure he’s only too happy to pay for his new freedom, and the cost has been blows to his ego and reputation. It cannot have been easy to see one’s previous penchant for Prada velvet slippers, designer sunglasses, ermine robes, chauffeured Mercedes and palatial apartments cast in so dim a light in comparison to his successor’s parsimonious ways. A Pope isn’t usually around to witness their papacy being dismantled. His private secretary, Father Georg Ganswein, who now alternates between his old and new boss, has made clear the criticism has stung him.

If Benedict XVI’s papacy had a theme it was to warn the world about what he described as “the dictatorship of relativism”. The modern world no longer believed in higher truths such as the traditional family, the supremacy of the Catholic faith, the errancy of homosexuality, and so he used the Church’s harsh arguments as ammunition in what was viewed as the “Culture Wars”. Yet he failed to recognise that he was, effectively, issuing orders to other people to put their own homes in order, while his was on fire.

However, by stepping down, Benedict has transformed the fortunes of the Catholic Church. By allowing himself to be substituted, a player more suited to the times has trotted onto the pitch.

So what has Pope Francis achieved? He has fundamentally changed perceptions of the Catholic Church for the better, without, as yet, changing the Church in any way. (It is hard to imagine Benedict preaching to 20,000 engaged couples on Valentine’s Day.)

The difference between the two men was articulated clearly in an interview with Pope Francis when he said: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clean and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security’, those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”

A Pope who says he does not need to live in a palatial apartment, that a simple hotel room is quite enough; a Pope who favours a Ford Focus over a chauffeured Mercedes; who bathes the feet of Muslim prisoners; who invites the homeless to attend his morning mass and share breakfast with him; who phones up an unmarried mother and offers to baptise her child after the local parish priest refused; who declares that he wants a “poor church for poor people” is a Pope to whom the public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have responded to with warmth. Something has changed when Rolling Stone puts the Pope on its cover.

The reason, I think, is that people recognise that he is one of us: a sinner. No-one could serve as head of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the “Dirty War” of the military junta without making mistakes, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio made many in the years before he became Pope Francis. His authoritarian leadership was deeply divisive and his decision to withdraw support from two Jesuit priests who defied his orders to leave a parish they had set up in a shanty town left them open to arrest and torture by the dictatorship. Bergoglio may have done everything in his power to work behind the scenes in order to secure their eventual release but one priest, Father Yorio, clung to the belief that he had been betrayed until his death, while only after years of estrangement was the other priest, Father Jalics, eventually reconciled with Bergoglio.

Should he have done more to speak out against the junta? Did he fear the fate of Oscar Romero in El Salvador? Compared to the saintly certainty of Pope John Paul II and the cool professorial reason of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis emanates a palpable sense that he has endured, like the rest of us, a long dark night of the soul, and has has plenty of regrets.

Yet what Pope Francis has done is, without changing a single comma on Church teaching on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, is to retreat from those antagonistic culture wars and focus instead on the poor. Previous Popes have all urged greater support for the poor, but the message has more impact when a pope begins to dismantle – or at least clean up – his own bank. As he wrote recently: “How could it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

People now expect Pope Francis to do the right thing: to atone for clerical child abuse and banish the culture of silence that allowed it to flourish; to clean up the Vatican bank and, hopefully, appoint a female non-Catholic as head; to begin to adequately promote the role of women elsewhere within the Church; and find a theological way to reunite divorced Catholics with the sacrament of Holy Communion. As for repealing the ban on contraception, I doubt it; and nothing is going to change on abortion or homosexuality, despite Francis’s welcome words: “Who am I to judge?”

There has been a revolution in the Vatican, but it has not been triggered by Pope Francis, though he certainly has the potential to carry it forward. It was launched by the Catholic Church’s Che Guevara who is now, one year on, next door and contentedly playing Chopin.