Benedict has met with many groups of victims and has expressed the profound and ashamed apologies of the Church for the scandals, while viewing them in proportion to the immense preponderance of devoted service the millions of Roman Catholic clergy provide in every country, and carefully separating the message of eternal truth it is the Church’s role to conserve and deliver from the errors and sins of some of its operatives. He has sharply tightened the monitoring requirements for avoidance of repetitions, more discriminatingly screened applicants for candidacy as religious, and has ordered full cooperation with local law enforcement. To the deafening astonishment and disappointment of such opponents as the New York Times, the Church has come through the scandal, as it has countless other scandals and manifestations of human sinfulness and evil in places pledged to sanctified conduct, and neither recruitment nor church attendance have declined. Somehow, the heavy civil-damage payments are being paid off.
Benedict XVI has been almost the only serious leader to try to get to grips with the problems of militant Islam, and of the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians, everywhere. He has spoken out repeatedly against the persecution of the Egyptian Coptic Christians, and the Christians of all denominations in China, and the Vatican is, for that reason, almost the only serious entity that still withholds recognition from the regime in Beijing. In a lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he had once been a professor of theology, he famously quoted a statement of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus in 1391: “Show me what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” He later apologized for any offense given, but did not withdraw the challenge to contemporary Islam to behave civilly to other faiths, in contrast to the pusillanimous quietism of most of the West’s secular leaders. In one of only two conversations I have had with him, the Pope (then a cardinal) expressed the concern that Europe was committing suicide by maintaining an unsustainably low birth rate and substituting for the unborn the immigration of large numbers of unassimilable people from hostile cultures (i.e., chiefly Islam). His efforts to revive Christianity in Europe do not seem to have borne much fruit, but they will be prophetic.
He has professed an intellectual and logical Christianity, and has warned of the dangers of relativism and consumerism more eloquently and substantively than have either less established moralists or the secular Left. He has sponsored an elegant traditional liturgy, acoustically superior to the original product of the Vatican II reforms, which has pleased conservatives like me (and Bill Buckley), without making the rites less culturally accessible. As I was able to appreciate, as someone who spent three years unjustly confined in a federal prison, Benedict was almost the only prominent person in the world who seemed to care about those deprived of their liberty, and always began the sequence of bidding prayers in his Masses with a reference to them (us). He recently pardoned his former butler for stealing confidential papers from him, and has recognized the futility of confinement for non-violent offenders.
I recall the late Pope, in the November of his courageously borne infirmities, telling a private luncheon at the World Youth observations in Toronto that “an emeritus pope is impossible.” Although it is the first such withdrawal since Gregory XII, who ended the schism of Avignon (“the Babylonian Captivity”) in 1417, 600 years is only, in the history of that institution, as far back as Harry Truman in the U.S. presidency. The last previous orthodox retirement was by Celestine V, Peter the Hermit, in 1296: He had been prevailed upon to accept the papacy only after the cardinals had failed for 27 months to replace the previous Pope, and he assumed the office at the age at which this pope is leaving it (85), and retired after only 15 months. This will be a useful precedent for popes who are unable to pursue the office with adequate vigor and acuity, and is a commendable act of withdrawal that more secular leaders should consider.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].