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Viewpoint: Benedict a disappointing leader in troubled times

Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of the month
Image caption Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of the month

Former Catholic Rod Dreher says Pope Benedict failed to live up to his own expectations. Will a new Pope bring new life to the Catholic Church?

In the twilight years of Pope John Paul II's papacy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw his office fax machine spew its foul issue into his Vatican bureau daily, like an open sewer pipe.

The fax brought him daily reports from the sex abuse scandal then unfolding in the United States, and which would spread to other nations.

Ratzinger's office was the Vatican's first point of contact with the news from America. A knowledgeable Vatican source told me at the time that the cardinal was badly shaken by all this.

And yet, Ratzinger was prevented from acting decisively in part by John Paul's intransigent unwillingness to face the facts about abusive priests and bishops who covered for them.

In the final days before John Paul's death, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke an extraordinary prayer at a Good Friday service, recognising the "filth" in the Catholic Church - a clear reference to clerical abusers - and saying how often the Church seemed "like a boat about to sink".

When he became Pope, many conservative Catholics rejoiced that the Church finally had a pontiff who would right the barque of Peter. Though by that time I was on my way out of Catholicism, my own faith the victim of the scandal, I, a great Ratzinger admirer, shared their joy and hope for renewal.

Seven years on, it's hard to see the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI as anything other than a disappointment.

Perhaps the kind of reform the Catholic Church needed was too much to expect from a man who was 78 when he assumed the office. Perhaps it was always too much to expect from a single figure, even the Pope, particularly one who is by nature a quiet, unassuming intellectual.

Whatever the truth, it is hard to judge Benedict's papacy a success, though history may judge the greatest thing he did for the church was to leave it before he became a sick and disengaged figurehead like his predecessor.

From a conservative perspective, Benedict made welcome liturgical reforms, including granting universal permission to celebrate the mass in Latin.

He reached out tirelessly to traditionalist followers of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, and to Orthodox Christian leaders, achieving sadly limited success in both instances, though not for lack of papal effort.

Yet his response to the abuse crisis, which was ultimately a severe crisis of authority, and arguably the greatest test of the Church's authority since the Reformation, was insufficient.

True, as Pope, he moved swiftly and decisively against the Legion of Christ, a Catholic religious order and favourite of John Paul II for its militant orthodoxy, but whose founder, it was revealed, was himself a sexual predator.

Yet Benedict never adequately confronted the depths of the crisis. Under this Pope, no bishop, however badly implicated in a cover-up, ever had to fear that Rome would hold him accountable for what he did, or failed to do, in the crisis.

It is telling that Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh and retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who failed dismally to act against abusers in their midst, remain eligible to vote for Benedict's successor.

What is the point of giving the pope supreme jurisdiction over the entire Church - including the right to depose bishops - if he never uses it? And if facilitating the sexual abuse of children by priests isn't cause for deposing bishops, what is?

Could Benedict not find even one bishop of whom to make an example?

On a more intellectual level, Benedict the theologian has long displayed an acute analysis of Western civilisation's crisis of confidence.

His famous denunciation of the "dictatorship of relativism" recognised the spiritual and philosophical oppression under which Western people, in this postmodern era, live. And his frank recognition of the limits of Catholic life in post-Christian Europe was realistic - and therefore, I think, hopeful.

More than most Christian intellectuals did Benedict appreciate the grave condition of the church in the West - and his words will guide the response of thoughtful Christians (not only Catholics) in the difficult decades to come.

If Benedict's papacy is judged a disappointment, it could be that conservatives and traditionalists enamoured of his reputation as a tough orthodox theologian expected too much from him.

Jesus had the power to calm the stormy waters, but the pope can only hope to steer the boat safely amid waves. After all, the strong currents of culture run deeper than the peaks and troughs we see on the surface.

The tide has gone out on Christianity in Europe, but it continues to rise in the so-called Global South. When media commentators say that the next pope must liberalise on sex and the role of women in the clergy, don't believe them.

The liberal churches in the US, Canada and Europe are declining even faster than the conservative ones. It is painful to say this, but Christianity in the West has had its day.

The next pope should come from Latin America, Africa or elsewhere in the developing world, where the poor masses continue to believe in the faith that the wealthy West has discarded.

Wherever the next pope comes from, one must hope that he grasps the gravity of the abuse crisis, and understands that restoring the authority of the Church's leadership requires far more episcopal accountability than his two predecessors - long on words, short on deeds - brought to the institution.

The Church is not invulnerable, as the shocking collapse of Catholicism in Ireland - Ireland! - has revealed. It is idealistic, but not unreasonable, to expect that bishops be a reason to stand by the Church, instead of a reason to lose faith.

E-mail: rod.dreher@gmail.com