WASHINGTON – Yes, Pope Benedict XVI came into the Vatican with the reputation as God’s Rottweiler. Yes, he was an archconservative who seemed to care a lot more about liturgical orthodoxy than the plight of the church’s progressives. Yes, he never escaped the shadow of the superstar and sanctified pope who preceded him. And yes, he largely failed in his placeholder pontificate to establish an emotional connection with the billions of people he led as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
But Benedict’s astonishing announcement Monday that he would be the first pontiff since Pope Gregory XII in 1417 to resign the papacy spoke directly to his less acknowledged, but perhaps more enduring and important legacy: transparency advocate.
The pope who came to prominence for his theological genius and doctrinal enforcement ruled as an advocate for good governance and basic accountability principles within the Roman Curia, a gerontocracy populated by department heads who operate with little to no accountability.
By telling cardinals on Monday that “in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict, 85, essentially argued that something as mundane as management was important enough a cause for which to sacrifice the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
“The pope made his decision out of love for the church,” said Greg Burke, the Vatican’s communications director. “It was a decision made out of humility and responsibility.”
In his eight years as pope, Benedict became most known for his public relations fiascoes, ranging from accidentally insulting Islam to unknowingly lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust denier to suggesting condoms were acceptable for male prostitutes. His tin ear to the modern universe and his lack of magnetism made him an easy mark, but they also acted as distractions from his efforts within the church hierarchy.
While his critics charge that he failed to use the full weight of his office to hold bishops and cardinals accountable for protecting child abusers in the priesthood, he took substantially greater steps than John Paul II to rid the church of what he called the “filth” of the priest sex-abuse scandal. And while hardly anybody beside close followers of his pontificate noticed, Benedict enacted a 2010 Motu Proprio — Latin for a papal decree of “his own impulse” — that called for greater transparency in the church’s financial practices to combat money laundering and, more broadly, the church’s shadowy reputation for corruption. The decree allowed for vetting of church accounts by outside European Commission inspectors, a regular practice for modern governments but a revolutionary one for a millennia-old institution for which privacy is paramount.
That glasnost was not universally embraced in the Vatican, where many officials think the pope went too far to appease the outside world. There remains a strong current of thought within the Curia that if the church has survived this long with a medieval approach to governance, why buckle to outside demands now? But there is a competing view: If the church hoped to expand its flock in countries riddled by corruption, it first needed to clean up its act at home. Benedict seemed to understand this.
But in an atmosphere in which petty politics often obscured the big picture, the pope also seemed incapable of fighting back against the institutional reluctance to reform. His No. 2 official, Tarcisio Bertone, the church’s secretary of state who acts as the church’s de facto prime minister, was surrounded by other church leaders who often seemed more interested in their own agendas than in reform. The internecine battle between those powerful officials and the reformers recently spilled out into the open through the most shocking of security breaches.
The pope’s own butler, Paolo Gabriele, leaked the pontiff’s most intimate documents and correspondence, setting off a scandal that came to be known as VatiLeaks. Officials in the church were deeply dismayed and embarrassed. But the media, almost helpfully, paid more attention to the whodunit aspect of the scandal than the substance of the documents, which showed in excruciating detail the power plays between the reformers and the reactionaries.
In the most famous of the leaked letters, Carlo Maria Vigano, whom Benedict in 2009 appointed the de factor mayor of Vatican City, complained about top officials preventing his efforts to clean up the city-state. He was fired by Bertone.
Ultimately, Benedict stood by Bertone. But cardinals and bishops and other officials in the Vatican, speaking privately, feel strongly that the pope was led astray by his closest advisers and bemoaned a management crisis in the church.
History may barely remember a pope who failed to overcome an enduring stigma as a member of the Hitler Youth, the hapless pope who came after John Paul II and before the church’s first New World pontiff. But it may recall a man who cared enough about getting his ship in order that he stepped aside so that a stronger hand could steer it.
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