NOTE: (This post is not intended to insult the Roman Catholic Church, but to analyze where the church now stands in light of Pope Benedict XVI's Resignation, and what a possible way forward could look like).
The evening that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation as the Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome, the head of the Roman Catholic Church--lightening struck St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Is this a coincidence or an ominous sign? While the Vatican has always been a place of political intrigue and complexity, the Holy See's current situation is not so difficult to figure out: The church is facing a severe global public relations problem that is spiraling out of control during Pope Benedict's tenure.
WHAT HAPPENED UNDER BENEDICT?
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, he was following in the footsteps of the most charismatic, global, and popular Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church: John Paul II. The Polish Pope was electrifying for a number of reasons:
1) After decades of Italian Popes, the Cardinals chose an obscure Cardinal from the Eastern Bloc nation of Poland.
2) John Paul II spoke nine languages fluently and managed to visit nearly 200 countries around the world. Prior to him, Pope's rarely traveled--and certainly not to that extent.
3) JPII used the power of the Papacy to pressure the Soviet Union and Eastern Nations' Communist regimes. He is often credited along with Gorbachev and Reagan as being a key to the end of the Cold War.
4) John Paul II was only in his 50's when he became Pope which gave him that title for a whole generation. Enough time for him to truly take full control of the Vatican and create a full deck of Conservative Cardinals from which future Pope's would be chosen.
There were two things, however, about John Paul II's reign that were often not discussed, but are now looming large. The first is that it was clear that John Paul II believed a Pope should govern for life. Despite having numerous health problems beginning in 1992, JPII remained the Pope even as the world saw him age dramatically, hunch over, lose his ability to speak, and even his ability to control saliva from coming out of his mouth in public. For John Paul II, his physical suffering was a public sign to all that human life was precious and should never be ended prematurely. The same held true for the Papacy. You are Pope until you die. Now Pope Benedict XVI is contradicting that and turning the Papacy into an institutional position in front of being Christ's chosen Priest on Earth.
The second issue that was not fully exposed or discussed under the John Paul II papacy was the extent to which the Vatican had spent literally decades shielding priests around the world from charges of child molestation. There were scandals in the United States and other countries, but the full extent of the Vatican's involvement was not yet public knowledge. This was a tidal wave that would not fully break until Ratzinger became Pope.
All cases of child molestation by priests were directed to Joseph Ratzinger's desk from 2001 onwards. Very little was done. In fact Ratzinger as Archbishop of Munich had allowed a priest to avoid any legal punishment after raping a number of children. The priest secretly completed therapy and then went on to molest more children. It can be said that Ratzinger was aware of every sex scandal involving child molestation for 4 years prior to becoming Pope and nothing happened. Actually, something did happen. The Vatican started a pattern of ignoring legal inquiries from various countries, ignoring protesting Catholics that showed up at events, or even acknowledging a problem. Upon becoming Pope, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, began to slowly deal with the situation. However, by then, it was far too late. New molestation cases became public from Australia to Holland--and often the details were horrifying. Schools for the disabled that were run by molesting priests, the story of Marcial Maciel--the Mexican priest who raised nearly $650 million dollars for the Vatican and was allowed to retire in peace despite raping seminarians, fathering numerous children, and doing drugs' and many other incidents. Even in his most recent visit to Marcial's home country of Mexico only a few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI refused to discuss the issue offending many and continued showing a pattern of denial that is truly global.
When Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II, it was believed that he was chosen because he was deeply conservative, a very close friend and preferred choice of JPII, and finally because he would have a short-tenure. But even though Benedict has only been Pope for less than 8 years, it's proven to be too long. In addition to the sex scandals and offending numerous nations, he provoked murderous riots after offending Muslims, lifted the ex-communication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust, and attempted to open the church to Anglicans without conferring with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Furthermore, it became clear that many of the sexual molestation cases and characters (like Marcial) had been hidden by John Paul II, yet Benedict put his friend John Paul II on the fast-track to Sainthood. Some of this could be mismanagement. Regardless, the cost has been high.
With the selection of Ratzinger, a German as Pope, there was great hope that this would revive Catholicism in Europe. It has had the exact opposite effect, however. Nowhere is that more clear than in Germany where Roman Catholicism is falling completely off the map. In the span of 15 years, the strongholds of Ireland and Poland have abandoned Roman Catholicism en masse. Everywhere throughout Europe, the church is embroiled in some scandal, often refusing to be transparent with governments, failing to truly put priests under local law; preferring to deal with scandals in-house.
Most recently, the Pope's own butler exposed many confidential documents to the world in what became known as the Vatileaks scandal. These documents showed a high level of intrigue and financial corruption occurring within the Vatican's walls, including a failure to cooperate with global money laundering laws.
WHY THE ENABLING?
Why did John Paul II allow so many cases of abuse to take place under his watch? The generous answer is that as a humble priest from rural Poland who saw and took part in the rescuing of Jews from the Nazis by Catholic priests, he was not able to see priests as being capable of that kind of evil. For Ratzinger, at least since 2003, there seemed to be a more sincere effort to deal with sexual predators. But the truth is that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI send contradictory messages. Committees are named and in-house action is taken, but there is a constant failure of acknowledgment of how horrid these crimes have been. In fact, there have been attempts by the Vatican to blame the American media for blowing it out of proportion. Whenever the choice is between vocally speaking up for the victims or for the institution, the Vatican always chooses the institution and people notice.
The trail of these crimes goes back to the 1930's and in this globally interconnected world, it is easy to go on Youtube and watch a documentary about Marcial or see Mea Maxima Culpa on HBO. Often decaying institutions don't realize how quickly the world can move on without them. They make adjustments far too late, and they allow weak leaders to govern too long. Ratzinger was known as a theologian and as the "Pope's Rottweiler." It was his job to keep the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church full of conservative leaders. He admitted he was not a good organizer. Now we know for a fact that he is not a good organizer, or communicator, or a good advocate for victims. The hope has been that small quiet measures would be enough to stop the bleeding. Dying Institutions often make the minimal amount of change possible in hopes of somehow regaining control without having to completely reform. But those small quiet measures are usually viewed as "institution before people or mission" by the world-at-large. The failure to admit that a major reformation is needed is only making the church and Benedict XVI lose credibility.
WHY THE RESIGNATION?
The Pope has had 2 serious injuries and a pacemaker put in over the past year or so. The Vatican, once again, has not been transparent--this time in regards to the Pope's health. Some say he is being blackmailed--perhaps by those who want to stop the investigations into sex crimes. Another possibility is that he realizes that he is simply not up to the job of reform anymore and he does not want to end up like John Paul II; being Pope but yet pretty incapacitated. One odd thing stands out: Benedict's desire to retire within the Vatican walls while a new Pope is governing down the hall. Why is this significant? Because enough hiding of sex crimes can be traced back to Ratzinger/Benedict for him to be tried for Crimes Against Humanity. He cannot, however, be arrested within the Vatican's walls.
We may never know the full truth of why Benedict resigned. Or there may be a scandal brewing or a leaked document that will reveal all soon. Regardless, the Roman Catholic Church now faces a moment that will either be a Public Relations Success or a P.R. disaster. If the new Pope can usher in new reforms and transparency laws, speak candidly about the Vatican's involvement in protecting priests around the world, and make it clear that people (especially innocent children) come before the institution--there is a chance for a re-set. It won't mean dramatic growth. It's too late for that. It will only staunch the bleeding in the West and outside of the West the church will grow in it's own non-Western way.
But if the deeply entrenched powers elect another Vatican insider or another incompetent organizer, the effects will further devastate the church. The pool of healthy reformers is very small. Many of the top names under consideration for the Papacy have had their own fights with authorities in their countries as they attempted to protect abusive priests.
When the church seeks self-protection to such an extent that it cannot stand up for an abused child, it quite obviously ceases to reflect Jesus. Benedict is not the man to lead this church away from this period of dark history. Can anybody do it, and will they be able to do it from a de-mystified bully pulpit know that Ratzinger has made it clear that the Pope is just a man holding an institutional title that can be resigned from at any time? That remains to be seen. Benedict may have opened Pandora's Box in his effort to get out of his bind.
In a time when Institutional Christianity is on the ropes, how the largest Christian Institution of all handles these next few years will have an impact on all of the Christian world.
WHAT COULD THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH DO?
1) New Bridge Pope: Do not elect a European or an Italian. Elect-a-Pope not tainted by scandal. That rules out the U.S. candidates. Elect a bridge Pope that paves the way for a future non-Western Pope, but re-calibrate for the Post-Christendom West one more time. The Cardinal from Canada would be a bridge figure (not European, but from a Post-Christendom Society).
2) Tour Soon but Strategically: The new Pope should make his first visits those countries that have been hit hardest by scandals: Ireland, Mexico, the United States-to name a few. There has to be recognition of the massive efforts to cover up church scandal at the cost of silencing and further hurting victims. There's no need to try to re-enact Pope John Paul II's excessive traveling. The Pope has now been relegated to an administrative position after Ratzinger's move and that's probably for the best. The new Pope should be seen in public with the survivors of the abuse--as opposed to shielding themselves from the protestors.
3) Sell off unused Catholic Properties: As the largest property owner in the World, the Catholic Church has many properties that are not used or are under-used as the church is in decline in the West. Sell these properties off and give them to local charities. Show that it's not about the money, empire, or Christendom. This forces the church into re-evangelization mode as opposed to resting on its wealth, laurels and land already "claimed for Catholicism."
4) Announce a major Human Development Goal: Like the Gates foundation, the new Pope should mobilize the church to tackle a crucial global problem like bringing pure water to every village around the world. Show that it's about the mission, not about bringing money back to Rome.
5) Allow Priests to Marry: It's difficult to not think that the inability for priests to marry has not created a culture of sexual abuse throughout its history. This would be a radical move, probably unacceptable to the current crew of Conservative Cardinals, but a major shift in a major policy would show that it is a new day.
6) De-Frock Abusive Priests and Allow Law Enforcement to Deal With Them: Most importantly, priests that abuse should be de-frocked and not protected from local authorities. Change the way this is dealt with and make the new process public.
The Vatican is always a place filled with intrigue and interest groups. Without a strong, charismatic leader like John Paul II who had the benefit of nearly 30 years of centralizing and aligning things his way, it's unlikely that today's Vatican is very pliable. The new Pope is probably facing the most divided church in a generation, if not a century.