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.
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].