Benedict XVI's papal resignation, the first in almost 600 years, took the world by surprise. It is now time for the Vatican game of cloak and dagger to start, and for us to ask: what kind of successor will the conclave elect?
The imminent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was announced on February 11, and the choice of dates, as always in matters concerning the Vatican was certainly not coincidental. February 11 is, in fact, the anniversary of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which put an end to almost sixty years of the Holy See’s virtual (and largely self imposed) diplomatic isolation that followed the irrevocable 1870 declaration of Rome as the Capital of the newly united Kingdom of Italy. The pretence to real temporal power had been lost for ever, but February 11, 1929 signified the Holy See’s return as a fully recognized actor on the International scene, deprived though it may have been of some of the more visible indications of temporal power such as a national territory and a military defence force.
The flurry of comments following the historic announcement included a number of interesting and thoughtful assessments of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, while the general evaluation has been preponderantly, in some cases even scathingly, negative, or, at best, critical. The most noticeable in this negative evaluation has been the German press, which, back at the time of Ratzinger's nomination had been rather optimistic, at times even lyrically enthusiastic.
At this stage, however, such assessments could well be premature, influenced, as they inevitably are, by the contrast in style, although much less in substance, between Benedict and his predecessor.
There are, nonetheless, some fundamental aspects that need to be examined, considering the historical impact of the decision, an extremely rare event in the history of the Papacy as the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.
Why, then, did the Pope make this decision, which, it is said, took even some of his closest aides by surprise? Those who have had the opportunity to meet Benedict in recent weeks have been unanimous in their assessment – he appeared ailing, weakened and, above all, fatigued. The stated motivation for this decision is convincing enough, especially when one considers the fact that Benedict himself was, it appears, considerably shocked by John Paul’s insistence on continuing to fulfil his mandate until the very end, in spite of severe health problems.
It has to be stressed, however, that age and ill health, though certainly relevant, were not the only factors that drove the Pope’s resignation.
Pope Benedict XVI presented himself, from the outset, as an extremely committed conservative theologian, but never showed those leadership traits essential to governing such an immense and complex empire as the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Pope's powers appear to be absolute – he is perhaps the only remaining absolute monarch in the world – his actions are strongly limited by the political complexity of the governing body itself, in which cardinals of different nationalities and schools of thought vie in a centuries old ruthless struggle for supremacy. A strong hand is needed to keep their actions under control. When Benedict took over the papacy – and this was a carefully planned election which took no one by surprise - the evidently growing weakness of his predecessor’s reign had given rise to a strong accentuation of the powers of the curia. And the new pope, since the very beginning, was unable to exercise the authority required to bring all these factions under control.
Much stress has been put by commentators on the scandals that supposedly weakened Benedict’s pontificate, ultimately causing it to be considered a failure. It has to be remembered that scandals, whether of a financial nature or otherwise, have riddled the Vatican for many years. The sex abuse scandals also predate Benedict’s accession to power: it could be argued that he, in fact, had the courage to publicly acknowledge the problem, and thus depart from the preceding policy of sidestepping the issue by appointing the guilty to different posts. Scandals were certainly not the sole cause of the pope’s apparent failure: we also have to take into account an inability to appoint the right people to delicate posts and, above all, to remove others from positions of power used to fulfil personal political agendas.
On the other hand, and in striking contrast to these considerations, it has to be recalled the curia didn't oppose Pope Benedict' determined drive to distance the Church from the Ecumenical “liberal” directions taken half a century ago by John XXIII on the occasion of the Vatican II Council. This is a difficult task because, according to the doctrine of papal infallibility (a rather recent addition to Roman Catholic dogma, proclaimed by Pius IX at the Vatican I Council in the 1860s), a Pope cannot be accused of having erred, and corrections to directions taken by a Pontiff can take many decades.
The very short pontificate of John Paul I – slightly over a month long – was the last to be held by a Pope publicly committed to the respect of the dictates of Vatican II, and the Church, since the election of John Paul II, has been constantly distancing itself from Vatican II. The idea, of course, is to lay the blame not on Pope John XXIII, who is by definition blameless, but on those, both within and outside the Catholic world who have constantly, often wilfully misinterpreted the meaning of the event. In reality, Vatican II was defined by continuity rather than rupture.
There is an understandable tendency to concentrate attention on statements made by public figures on important occasions, but Vaticanists know that popes sometimes use more obscure or modest instances to enunciate important principles. In a homily recently delivered to an audience of humble parish priests, the Pope firmly reiterated his belief that the “misinterpretations” of Vatican II have to be corrected. It is safe to say that this will be the more probable direction taken by the future pontificate.
Speculation abounds on the possibility that, for the first time in its history, the Conclave will elect a non-European – perhaps even an African or Asian – Pope. This is actually a matter of limited importance and, should the conclave so decide, it would be aimed at showcasing the “universality” of the Church and at giving vicarious pride to a particular nationality or ethnicity, rather than in an effort to set the Vatican's policies on a new track. All the possible papal candidates, be they African, Asian or from the Americas, have spent enough time as cardinals in the curia to be thoroughly trained (some would say “Italianised”). Additionally, they and the rest of the cardinals in the conclave, regardless of their geographic or ethnic origins, have been chosen by extremely conservative popes, precisely to prevent undesirable deviations, of the type experienced in 1978 when a non-curialist pope (John Paul I) was elected.
In such a hotly contested vote (there is, as of now, no clear frontrunner), there is always the possibility of an outsider, a maverick unexpected candidate obtaining the required majority, and thus upsetting the plans of the mainly Italian-led conservative faction of the curia. This is possible but extremely unlikely, and the winner will most probably be if not Italian, at least a man of the curia, well versed in what his duties are expected to be.