Benedict XVI: A Failure?

by Michael Potemra


Earlier this week, the Fox News website had an article saying Pope Benedict XVI was resigning because he was heartbroken, owing to the fact that his pontificate was a failure. I thought the Fox News article was fundamentally wrong-headed, even though there were grains of truth buried here and there within it. I decided not to write about that article because I didn’t think it was intelligent and serious enough to merit criticism, and in any case there would be plenty of time to discuss the shortcomings of Benedict’s eight-year term in the papal office. We should now focus, instead, on (a) paying tribute to what Benedict actually did achieve and (b) finding a good replacement for him.

But now comes Jody Bottum’s blistering article in The Weekly Standard, laying into the failings of Benedict as Pope — chiefly, his inability to govern:

“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict explained in the terse statement he read aloud, in his scholar’s Latin, to a consistory in Rome on February 11. The truth is, however, that if proper governance of the church—doing the hard administrative work needed to sail that ship of the fisherman, St. Peter—were all that is required of a pope, then Benedict should have resigned long ago. His aging has brought little new; he has been, all in all, a terrible executive of the Vatican. Not in San Celestino’s league, of course, but as bad as a pope has been for 200 years.

I remember thinking, at the time of the 2005 election, that because John Paul II had not paid much attention to administrative issues and to the vicious internecine struggles within the Vatican wasps’ nest, it would be a good idea for the next Pope to be an insider who could take a firm hand. Ratzinger had been a Vatican insider for a quarter-century, and many observers — especially conservatives, who viewed him as a kindred spirit – thought he’d fit the bill: The “Vatican crackdown” so beloved of lazy headline-writers would finally occur in reality, and not least within the Vatican itself. (Remember all the crowing about how “the cafeteria is closed”? Seems like quite a while ago, doesn’t it?) Others, including me, thought the new Pope would be rather too shy and bookish to throw his weight around in this way, and to make his decisions stick.


As it turned out, writes Bottum, Ratzinger finally couldn’t cope with all the “time bombs” that had been planted in the John Paul II years:

When John Paul II took office in 1979 [sic; it was actually 1978--MP], he immediately perceived that he had been elected to lead an entrenched, recalcitrant (and mostly Italian) clerical bureaucracy in Rome. . . .

His solution was simply to do an end run. . . . He mostly ignored the Roman world and used his personal staff as a kind of shadow Vatican—more real, as the years went by, than the Vatican itself. . . .

As strategies for sidestepping the problems of his moment, [this and ignoring the liberal-conservative split concerning Vatican II] were brilliant and effective. Unfortunately, they also left the problems themselves unaddressed: time bombs waiting for his successor. For Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

And off with a boom they duly went. A church bank so incompetently run that the Bank of Italy finally prohibited all electronic teller transactions on Vatican territory, in an effort to stop the local criminals who were using them to launder money and cash in on stolen credit cards. A household staff who were pilfering papers and selling them to journalists and souvenir seekers. A press office that lurched from crisis to crisis like arsonists in firemen’s clothes—apparently incapable of not pouring gasoline on the fires they were called to put out. The aftermath of the Regensburg lecture in 2006, for instance, in which the pope was accused of insulting Islam, ought to be mandatory reading for press secretaries in how never to behave. 

I agree with Bottum that the pontificate of Benedict XVI was a failure in some very significant ways, including some of the ones he mentions. But I view the matter from a rather different perspective: I think Ratzinger is not a Pope who failed and who should be faulted for that, but rather a man who was not cut out for the demands of the papacy, but accepted the job only because he thought it would be sinful to reject what appeared to be a calling from God.

Bottum writes: “The political portions are part of the pope’s job, too. That’s something, one suspects, that the ascetic monk Peter of Morrone didn’t grasp while serving as Pope Celestine V, saint though he was. It’s something that Joseph Ratzinger seems to have ignored as Pope Benedict XVI, saint though he too may be.” Here’s where I disagree with Jody: I’d be very surprised if Ratzinger’s shortcomings as Pope were owing to his decision to “ignore” important duties. He is by all accounts a painstakingly scrupulous man — to a fault. (To a purely secular mind, one unfamiliar with the casuistries of moral theology, Ratzinger’s delicacy of conscience might even look like neurosis.) I think it’s much more likely that his faults come from the same source most of our faults do: Nobody’s perfect. He knew when he was elected that he was not a great administrator, but he thought that if he did his best, with God’s help, he could do well enough. After eight years of hard work — and prayer, and reflection on his problems and the Church’s — he has come to the conclusion that he can now lay down this burden, in the confidence that he is not putting his own will above God’s.

Bottum says that while the Pope’s decision to resign may be “intelligent,” it may not be “wise,” for a number of reasons he lays out. His arguments are interesting, and I recommend them to the attention of readers. (FWIW, I disagree: I think a papal resignation does much to demystify the papacy, and remind Catholics that it is Christ, not whoever happens to be Pope at a given moment, who should be at the center of their faith.)

In the broadest sense,  I think what’s most surprising about this pontificate is not that it fell short in a number of significant ways, but that Benedict XVI did as well as he did. Despite his long years in Rome, he ended up being a square peg in the round hole of the papacy, and deserves a lot of credit for how he bore up under all the pressure. I am especially impressed by how well he connected with the massive crowds. When he was elected, I thought the rock-star/celebrity aspect of the papacy was the one he was least suited for: He proved me wrong. It’s not that he liked massive crowds, per se (I have read that he found them quite exhausting, where John Paul II, by contrast, found them invigorating): It is, rather, that his gentle manner, contrasted with the loud cheering of hundreds of thousands of people, proved quite winsome.

I do not envy the next person who fills that office. There will be failures, of some kind or another, during his pontificate, too; every time the new Pope misspeaks or blunders — or, even more horrifying, reasserts some unpopular Catholic teaching — we’ll see posters of Benedict of the kind we had of Bush, smiling and saying, “MISS ME YET?” I offer the next guy all good wishes. And I commend Jody Bottum for the most heartfelt, incisive, and intelligent article I have seen so far about the Pope’s resignation.

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