By consensus, while emeritus Pope Benedict XVI was a great teaching pontiff, ecclesiastical governance on his watch often left something to be desired. Space does not permit a full listing of meltdowns and crises, but here are a few highlights:
- The appointment in 2007, followed by the swift fall from grace, of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who had an ambiguous relationship with the Soviet-era secret police.
- The eerily similar appointment in 2009 of an Austrian bishop who had suggested Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for the wickedness of New Orleans, and who was likewise gone within days.
- Lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist Catholic bishops in 2009, including one who denied that the Nazis used gas chambers, with little apparent regard for how that move would be perceived.
- The surreal “Boffo case” from 2010, pivoting on the former editor of the official newspaper of the Italian bishops. (If you don’t know the story, it would take too long to explain, but trust me … Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t make this stuff up.)
- The Vatileaks scandal of 2011-12, which featured revelations of financial corruption and cronyism, and which ended with the conviction and pardon of the pope’s own former butler for stealing confidential documents.
Less spectacularly, there was a chronic sense during the Benedict years that the pope’s administrative team, led by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was occasionally out of its depth. Decisions were delayed, and when they came, the logic for how things shook out was sometimes opaque.
Frustration over a perceived “management deficit” helped pave the way for election of a new pope in March 2013, with a reputation as someone who could clean out the stables and get the Vatican under control. (Whether or not that’s actually happening today is an utterly different conversation.)
Australia’s George Pell, today Pope Francis’ finance chief, was among those calling for a house-cleaning three years ago.
“I think the governance is done by most of the people around the pope, and that wasn’t always done brilliantly,” he said after Benedict’s resignation. “I’m not breaking any ground there — this is said very commonly.”
Today, however, marks the 11th anniversary of Benedict’s election to the papacy on April 19, 2005, and to mark the occasion, I want to suggest that over the long run, Benedict will be judged not by his failures but rather the historic reform processes he set in motion.
Centuries from now, Pope Benedict may well be remembered as a “Great Reformer.” The following are three reasons why.
Although Pope Francis has launched an ambitious program of financial reform, it’s important to remember that the long-delayed work of bringing the Vatican into the 21st century vis-à-vis financial administration actually began under Benedict.
Perhaps the single most important move Benedict made was to choose, for the first time, to subject the Vatican to independent secular review in the form of the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, Moneyval.
Never before had the Vatican opened its financial and legal systems to this sort of external, independent review, with the results made public, and to say the least, the decision encountered some internal Vatican blowback.
In centuries past, had secular authorities shown up to conduct such a review, they would have been fought off tooth and nail in the name of defending the autonomy and sovereignty of the papacy. For Moneyval, the red carpet was rolled out instead.
Benedict was also the pope who created a new financial watchdog unit inside the Vatican, the Financial Information Authority, and hired a serious professional to lead it: A Swiss lawyer named René Brülhart, who for the previous 10 years had led anti-money-laundering efforts in the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein.
In so doing, Benedict gave definitive answers to two nagging questions:
- Does the Vatican owe anyone “outside the family” an explanation of how it handles its finances?
- Does secular expertise on money management have a place in the Holy See?
With those two pillars in place, the rest can be figured out.
When the abuse scandals in the United States broke in 2002, reaction in the Vatican was divided between what one might loosely call the “reformers” and the “deniers.” The fault lines broke down in terms of these debates:
- Is the crisis largely a media- and lawyer-driven frenzy, or is it a real cancer?
- Should the church cooperate with civil authorities, or is that surrendering the autonomy the church has fought titanic battles over the centuries to defend?
- Should the church embrace the use of psychology in screening candidates for the priesthood, or is that smuggling in a secular mentality in place of traditional spiritual principles of formation?
- Should the church support aggressive programs of abuse prevention and detection, or does that risk “sexualizing” children along the lines of secular sex education?
- Is the crisis truly a global phenomenon, or is it the fruit of a “moral panic” largely restricted to the West?
- Should the Vatican sign off on “zero-tolerance” policies, or does that rupture the paternal relationship that’s supposed to exist between a bishop and his priests?
When the American scandals erupted under St. John Paul II, the deniers had control in the Vatican and the reformers were an embattled minority. By the end of Benedict’s papacy, the situation was the exact reverse: The deniers hadn’t gone away, but they’d been driven underground.
While he was still at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who pushed for new rules to weed out abuser priests in the Pope John Paul II years and who wrote those rules into law as pope.
It was also Ratzinger who unleashed his top prosectuor, then-Msgr. Charles Scicluna, on Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado despite the cleric’s powerful network of Vatican allies, and who sentenced Maciel to a life of “prayer and penance” in 2006.
Later, Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse, the first pope to apologize for the crisis in his own name, and the first pope to dedicate an entire document to the abuse crisis in his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland.
Benedict laicized almost 400 priests in 2011 and 2012 alone for reasons related to sex abuse, which is almost 1 in every 1,000 Catholic priests in the world flushed out of the system in just two years.
To be sure, there was plenty of work left undone at the end of Benedict’s term, but the broad direction had been set.
Although Pope Francis is rightly celebrated for his humility and simplicity, the truth is that Benedict XVI contributed significantly to the “demystification” of the papal office well before Francis stepped onto the scene.
Here’s an example. Shortly after his election, Francis returned to the Casa del Clero in Rome where he’d been staying prior to the conclave in order to pack his own bag and pay his own bill, an episode that became part of his “man of the people” image.
Yet Benedict did much the same thing 11 years ago, returning to his apartment to pack up and then going around to thank the nuns who lived in the building for being good neighbors. In other words, Benedict was every bit as humble as his successor – arguably, in some ways, more so – even if that wasn’t always clear from his public image.
Benedict also humanized the papacy with his capacity to admit fault and to ask for help.
His 2009 letter to the bishops of the world after the Holocaust-denying traditionalist debacle is one of the most heart-felt, plaintive documents written by a papal hand you’ll ever see, and in it Benedict candidly acknowledged that he and his Vatican team had dropped the ball – not on the substance of the decision, which he defended, but on the way it was handled and communicated.
Finally, of course, there’s the fact that Benedict delivered the single most stunning act of papal humility in at least the last 500 years: His Feb. 11, 2013, decision to resign.
Pope Francis has said that in the wake of that act, resignation has now become an “institution” rather than a historical anomaly. That doesn’t even mean every future papacy will end in resignation, because some no doubt will still die in office, either as a conscious choice or simply by dint of circumstance.
Nevertheless, Benedict clearly answered the question of whether a pope even could resign in relatively normal historical circumstances – in other words, when not facing schism or invading armies – with a resounding “yes,” thereby, in ecclesiological terms, moving the papacy a huge step closer to being reinserted within the College of Bishops.
No doubt, Francis and whoever follows him will continue to build on these precedents. The fact always will remain, however, that the precedents were set by the “Great Reformer.”