On awakening to consider what to write about in this space and learning that Pope Benedict XVI had retired, my first thoughts were of what Bill Buckley would think it appropriate to write. Apart from his other claims to eminence, he always commanded a level of deference from me in sectarian matters because he was a more fervent and more knowledgeable Roman Catholic than I, and his Christian past was unsullied by having been an ex-agnostic and early-middle-aged convert to Rome, as I am. Where he was always a Roman Catholic and, as far as I could discern, never seriously questioned either his own adherence or its entire legitimacy, I was raised as a non-practicing Protestant and started down the path to Rome only when, in my mid-twenties, I lost confidence in the non-existence of God. It was a logical, though not rapid, sequence after that, and though I am comfortable in my adopted faith and quite rigorous in its practice, I have never developed, nor aspired to, the denominational authority that, as in all things, Bill Buckley carried with such panache. What follows is not a pallid effort to conjure what Bill’s thoughts would be, though I recall from conversation that Bill had a very high regard for this pope, well beyond what he would automatically tender ex officio.
I believe he has been a very successful pope. Benedict XVI had first to cope with the grievous and sometimes mortifying crisis of the priestly physical abuse of children and adolescents, which had been unattended or even covered up in many dioceses, and was amplified by the agnostic and atheistic media. To the secularist community, to Rome’s rivals — schismatic, apostate, adversarial, or merely indifferently skeptical — the Roman Catholic Church has been an immense bumblebee, denying all laws of nature and logic and inexplicably postponing the inevitable hour when it folds its overtaxed wings and plunges to the earth, a magnificent, possibly even benignly, or at least sincerely, intended fraud. To that undoubtedly large number of people who do not believe in God or any spiritual forces, Rome cannot be more than a superstitious reliquary, even if it rendered many good works and patronized some distinguished artists.
But to many others — the far Left, the militant feminists, the arch-hedonists — the Roman Catholic Church was a vast, ramshackle opponent, made more incomprehensible by the spectacle of aged celibates pronouncing an imperious humbug on much that is pleasurable and most personal, especially in what are now infelicitously described in the United States as “reproductive rights,” rights the authors of these prohibitions have renounced for themselves. When an organization as convinced and outspoken in its moral authority as the Roman Catholic Church, and claiming to be the legitimate continuator of the church God’s alleged son purportedly told St. Peter to found, stumbles as badly, both in conduct and in dealing with the misconduct, as some clergy did in the abuse crisis, it is not surprising that its natural antagonists would explode in gleeful righteousness. This does not excuse the mainstream media for largely failing to point out that over 95 percent of the Roman Catholic clergy have fought illness, illiteracy, and poverty, to the immeasurable benefit of billions of people over nearly 20 centuries. Nor does it excuse the wanton and defamatory zeal of ostensibly respectable outlets such as the New York Times, virtually offering evanescent fame, a tour of Manhattan concluding with a four-martini lunch in a five-star restaurant, to anyone who could claim to remember being looked at salaciously in the 1920s in Patagonia by a Roman Catholic novice.
Benedict XVI had to deal with all this, starting with a sustained international campaign representing that he had willfully overlooked grave episodes in this scandal in his previous position of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of these allegations have been proved to have been unfounded. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he unsuccessfully urged on the late Pope John Paul II scrutiny of the problems of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, whom, as pope, Benedict removed and excoriated. He also succeeded in securing the removal of John Paul II’s friend, Hans Hermann Cardinal Groër, for immoral acts, and in all cases he tried to steer between protecting victims and avoiding the casting down into hopeless criminalization of those guilty of perverted deviance. His desire to avoid unnecessary publicity, especially from questionably motivated prosecutors, was understandable, but it never approached condoning the offenses.