Putting the Pope in His Place

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to renounce the Petrine ministry has understandably brought about a plethora of public reactions, not all of them favorable, and including not a few that resemble the familiar animadversions quite regularly made today against the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. Although in this case applied to Pope Benedict personally, and to his years in the chair of Peter, the reactions in question reflect the disfavor and even hostility in which the Church and the faith are widely held today, not only by secular liberals and the “cultured despisers” of Christianity, but even by some putative members of the pope’s own flock.

Some of these reactions exhibit not just a lack of sympathy or true understanding of what the Church and the faith are all about, but even a seemingly willful determination not to allow oneself to be influenced by what the actual facts of the case might be, meanwhile exhibiting a lofty dissatisfaction with the alleged failure of the pope (and the Church) to “get with the program” of today’s secular liberal world.

Thus, as soon as the pope’s announcement was made, a self-appointed Greek chorus of media and establishment voices immediately found much to criticize in Pope Benedict’s pontificate: the cerebral pontiff had failed to “connect” with people, it was said; he could never manage to emerge from out of the shadow of his superstar predecessor; the humble mien he typically presented contrasted unfavorably with the dynamism of Pope John Paul II (as if the latter was ever really admired for this by these same people when he was the pope!).

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Then, it regrettably had to be recognized, Pope Benedict had tried but failed to revive the faith in Europe; this had been one of his more ambitious projects; but the results were undeniably meager (as if this revival was supposed to have been completed within the pope’s short eight-year term of office!). At the same time, the pope had unwisely given aid and comfort to some within the Church desiring to roll back the reforms of Vatican Council II; this became undeniable when he elected to placate the Catholic traditionalists and the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Notoriously, the pope even rehabilitated an anti-Semitic holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop.

Nor was this kind of thing a case of just favoring reactionary elements within the Church; in his ill-advised Regensburg Address, the pope ignited protests all over the Muslim world with his negative remarks on the Prophet Mohammed.

The list of his alleged mistakes and failures went on: his handling of the clerical sex-abuse crisis in the Church again supposedly left a very great deal to be desired; some of the stories focused on this particular subject, including the lead story of the Washington Post on February 11 announcing the pope’s resignation, even revived the false and long discredited allegations that, as archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger had allowed a German priest-abuser to be returned to ministry; and that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had been complicit in a Vatican failure to defrock a Wisconsin priest who many years earlier had abused young boys. Just about every media account that touched upon the subject of clerical sex abuse, in fact, either implied, or sometimes even bluntly stated, that Pope Benedict XVI had been knowingly involved in the Churchwide conspiracy to condone and cover up abuse. As late as February 23 in her “On Faith” column in the same Washington Post, Sally Quinn casually referred without citing examples or proof to the “crimes being protected and excused by the Vatican.”

Then, of course, there was the undoubted fact of Benedict’s once having belonged to the Hitler Youth organization (into which he was involuntarily drafted along with all the other boys his age in Hitler’s Germany, but in which he was never active). Yet the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release on February 12 documenting that no less than sixteen major media outlets, including such stalwarts as the Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Toronto Globe and Mail and the BBC and the Guardian in England, claiming that young Joseph Ratzinger had “joined” the Hitler Youth Organization.

There was also the matter of the pope’s apparent inability to put an end to the bureaucratic in-fighting in the Vatican, as brought out in the leaked documents pilfered by his butler. Similarly, he proved unable to deal with the financial irregularities at the Vatican bank or require compliance with international financial transparency standards. Credit card activity in the Vatican had to be blocked by the Italian authorities!

Among other accusations given new life as a result of the pope’s renunciation of the papal office were those implied by such sobriquets as “God’s Rottweiler” and Panzerkardinal frequently given to Cardinal Ratzinger during his years at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For was there not the recent “crackdown” on American nuns to show that the “old Church” had in no way been left behind? An AP story dated February 12 was among those reporting how this had “left a bitter taste among Catholics.”

And there certainly seemed to be a clear consensus among the liberal commentators that Pope Benedict had failed to reconcile progressive Catholics to his brand of Catholicism, meanwhile insisting on outdated Church teachings barring women from the priesthood, denying the “rights” of homosexuals, and continuing to condemn birth control and abortion.

The general picture, then, was one of an almost completely failed pontificate. Brilliant theologian as he was generally conceded to be, the pope had nevertheless simply not been able to measure up.

Among the most persistent themes, however, was how the Catholic Church now has to change. This theme was stressed in particular by soi-disant Catholics whose main interest in the Church seems to have become how she has to change. Reporting on TV network coverage of Pope Benedict’s renunciation of his office, for example, the Media Research Center judged that ABC’s self-identified Catholic Diane Sawyer “should go to confession” following her remarks on the Church’s need for “fundamental change,” given “the burden of what the Church has been through with the scandals.”

However, probably a low point was reached on CBS by David Letterman’s jibe about the pope’s “chronic neck problem”—caused, he thought, “by looking the other way so many times.” Letterman further opined that the Church was no doubt looking to replace Pope Benedict with “a guy who is good at transferring creepy priests.”

Distortions and Untruths Persist in Media Coverage
And so it went. What must strike a knowledgeable observer is how many of these characterizations, in spite of the confidence with which they have mostly been delivered, are either distortions or are simply not true! Even though the German pope has never attempted to present himself as a charismatic figure—quite the contrary!—he has nevertheless generally “connected” quite well with his audiences; some of his appearances have drawn larger crowds than those of this predecessor; this has certainly been true of the spontaneous outpourings of affection which greeted his announcement that he was stepping down. Benedict’s modest, even humble, demeanor has drawn people to him.

Similarly, his announced aim of reviving the faith (not only in Europe) has been launched quite impressively in the course of his relatively short pontificate, and will surely continue on in this Year of Faith.

Again, the allegation that he has somehow weakened the reforms of Vatican II can only have reference to what his critics think—usually mistakenly—the reforms of Vatican II actually were. As the pope pointed out in his off-the-cuff farewell address to the clergy of Rome on February 14, the Council was badly misinterpreted and abuses followed; many of its true reforms are only now being realized; he himself helped set the Church back on the road to true reform with his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia calling for a “hermeneutic of continuity” interpreting the Council in accordance with the authentic tradition of the Church.

Moreover, the pope’s various overtures to the Catholic traditionalists have surely been those of a concerned father; it is part of his job, after all, to try to reconcile those who have strayed, even though the SSPX’s adherents have not found it possible to respond in kind. He still needed to make the effort. (The media brouhaha that accompanied his lifting of the excommunication of SSPX Bishop Williamson—an honest mistake—was grossly exaggerated all out of proportion to any real significance that the whole affair had.)

As for the pope’s Regensburg Address, who can seriously argue that the application of reason to religion is not generally a good thing?

And with regard to the snide suggestions, and even open accusations, that this pope was somehow himself consciously and culpably involved in the Church’s clerical sex abuse scandal, and in the disgraceful record of cover-ups by members of the hierarchy, these claims are both false and themselves disgraceful. Pope Benedict XVI was never officially involved in this issue until quite late in the game; and the evidence is that as soon as he became involved, he was both prescient and highly responsible in the actions that he took. Who can forget his candid remarks about “filth” in the Church, or his very moving personal meetings with the victims of abuse?

It was none other than Pope Benedict XVI, after all, who finally removed Marcial Maciel Degollado from ministry as head of the Legionaries of Christ. Pope John Paul II, along with other “orthodox” Catholics, had refused to credit the charges brought against the evil double life being led by this cleric.

Like the insinuation that the young Joseph Ratzinger was ever an active member of Hitler Youth, any or all suggestions that he was ever in any way implicated in the clerical sexual abuse scandal—or soft on the issue—have to be treated as baseless.

Similarly, the idea that Pope Benedict XVI was remiss with respect to the financial troubles of the Vatican and the Vatican bank leaves out the fact that it was again this pope, precisely, who issued a motu proprio forbidding money laundering and who established in the Vatican a watchdog office, the Financial Intelligence Authority.

That some of the pope’s critics felt the necessity to hearken back to his days as a supposed Panzerkardinal riding roughshod over dissenters and heretics suggests a dearth of papal misdeeds that they could lodge against him. But Cardinal Ratzinger was actually quite lenient as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—considering the extent of dissent and disloyalty in the Church. He instituted disciplinary action in only a few of the more notorious cases such as that of Father Charles E. Curran, who was not just a dissenter, but a theoretician and fomenter of dissent. As for the current Vatican “crackdown” on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, this organization has been defying Church authority for decades, and the recent action was really quite mild by comparison with what the LCWR richly deserves.

And as for the pope’s insistence on the Catholic teachings regarding female (non)ordination, homosexual acts, or birth control and abortion, anybody who imagines that any of these teachings might possibly ever be changed simply does not understand the nature of the Catholic Church and her magisterium. These teachings are in no way merely “conservative” theological opinions that some future pope might conceivably change. They are definitive Church teachings that cannot be changed.

All in all, then, the attempt of the secular liberals, the media, and some dissident Catholics to put Pope Benedict XVI in his place has not proved to be very impressive—especially if truth is considered to be a necessary element in making any such judgment. This kind of critical account of the pope and his papacy, however, is not so much based on what he has actually said and done, but rather upon what his critics think he should have said and done—based on criteria of theirs often far removed from anything resembling authentic Catholicism. He has been weighed in the balance and found wanting by his critics precisely because he has so faithfully and authentically reflected and represented what the Church and the faith truly are; he has been faulted and vilified because he has been such a “good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:21).

Catholics might rightly be disappointed and even dismayed at how their Church and their faith—along with their Church’s supreme leader over the past eight years—could be so ignorantly and even maliciously characterized and misrepresented. It should not be forgotten, however, that “if the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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