Take This Job and Bless It

By R. D. Flavin


     His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God, resigned yesterday.  So, as of today, the world's 1.2 billion Catholics are without anyone to hold on to the keys (St. Peter's the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” from Matt. 16:19).  There's an empty chair in the Vatican, the Holy See considers itself in a state of sede vacante ("vacant seat"), and no one knows who will next occupy the “Throne of St. Peter” and lead the Roman Catholic Church.  His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in his position as a shepherd, has decided that his advanced age and questionable health has made him unfit to be responsible for his flock, and has informed the sheep that they can (and should) ...take this job and bless it.   Actually, that will be up to the 117 or so members of the College of Cardinals, but until a replacement is chosen ...the sheep are on their own.  I mean, it's not like the sheep can graze wherever they want, but some are already wandering...

     It's been nearly six hundred years since a pope quit voluntarily, and that was part of a plea-bargain to shut the French up and get them to stop electing their own rival popes (“antipopes”).  Pope Gregory XII, whose papacy only lasted from 1406 to 1415, took one for the team and brought about the end to the Western or Papal Schism (1378–1417).  Before that, Pope Saint Celestine V was chosen in the Church's last non-conclave papal election in 1294.  Because the election took two years, the Church began locking the voting cardinals behind doors and only letting them out after they'd reached a decision. [Note: Perhaps America may wish to do this with Congress from time to time.]  The new pope was crowned in June, his first edict was that a pope had the right to quit, and he abdicated in December.  He immediately left Rome, paranoid Pope Boniface VIII believed others might regard him as a “true” pope, had him brought back to Rome, Pope Saint Celestine V escaped, but was recaptured and imprisoned, dying in captivity after ten months.  He was made a saint in 1313 and is remembered for his humility and the monastic order which he founded (Celestine Order, var. the Hermits of St. Damian or Hermits of Murrone).

     Now, there were two previous popes who ...left office before death, and their stories are connected.  There was Pope Benedict IX who acquired the papacy as a teenager because he was related to a powerful family (very wealthy and included three various popes), is said to have been bisexual and enjoyed orgies, and was forced from the papacy for much really bad behavior (he was accused of rape and murder).  A new pope was installed, Pope Sylvester III, but Benedict IX returned with allegations that he had bribed his way into the papal position and Sylvester III was excommunicated by Benedict IX, who then reclaimed the Throne of St. Peter.  However, wishing to start anew and get married (and in need of some quick cash), Benedict IX sold the papacy to John Gratian, the Archpriest of St. John by the Latin Gate, who took the name of Gregory VI.  Well, Gregory VI didn't last long, a convened synod accused him of simony, and he put down his crosier and retired to Germany.  And, wonder of wonders, after the next pope died of lead poisoning (Pope Clement II), Benedict IX returned yet again, only to lose the Apostolic Palace of the Lateran to German troops a year later.  He was excommunicated, is rumored to have repented (i.e. felt really bad for being really bad), and died in obscurity in 1056. So, Benedict IX (b. Theophylactus of Tusculum) was pope three times!  I guess that's a record of sorts for people that keep track of those types of things...

     So, what do we call the newly resigned pope?  It's been determined by Church officials that His Holiness shall continue to be referred to as such.  Grammarians are struggling with the new titles of “Emeritus Pope,” where emeritus is a preposition adjective, or “Pope Emeritus,” where it's a postpositional adjective, and the variations of Bishop Emeritus of Rome and Roman Pontiff Emeritus.  In American English grammar, either the preposition or postpositional is considered correct, British grammar prefers the preposition usage, but allows for both, and foreign language translators are going to ...have fun figuring it all out.  As of yesterday, it's no longer His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (né Joseph Ratzinger, aka “Papa Benny”), but something else with the word 'emeritus' (L. ēmeritus - one that has earned out of or that has served their time), which could be capitalized or not depending on convention and copy-editors.  Also, His Holiness Benedict XVI is ditching the customary red shoes worn by a pope and is said to be considering some brown Mexican loafers that were presented as a gift when he visited Mexico last year.

     His Holiness Benedict XVI enters retirement with the Church embroiled in scandal and challenged by controversy.  Also, there could be an international warrant for his arrest issued at some point if the Catholic sex abuse scandal continues to spiral downhill seemingly out of control.  It's common knowledge Ratzinger served in the Hitler Youth, then was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps, and finally trained for and joined the German infantry, which he deserted from as the Allies closed in.  He was put into a POW camp for a few months until World War II formally ended.  Afterward, he (re-)enrolled in the seminary, was ordained a priest in 1951, continued his academic efforts and became a professor at Freising College in 1958, moved to the University of Bonn in 1959, and to the University of Münster in 1963.  During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Ratzinger was a theological consultant to Cardinal Frings of Cologne and promoted liberal reform.  At some point during the late 1960s, he turned from liberalism to conservatism and has remained ...somewhat stiff and stern in his views ever since.  As such, in 1981 Blessed Pope John Paul II appointed (at the time) Cardinal Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (established in 1542 because the Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions had worked out so well) . It was His Holiness Benedict XVI's job for 24 years (though he did ask to quit, and was denied, in 1997) to be stiff and stern in matters Catholic, and also to enforce Church requirements to first notify Rome if allegations of sexual abuse against priests were made and subsequently to uphold the confidentiality of internal church investigations.  Such “in-house” behavior allowed the widespread transfer of accused priests to go publicly unnoticed and, in many cases, greatly hindered criminal prosecution.  Yeah, it wicked stinks of cover-up and it's going to take a whole bunch of highly skilled Jesuits to argue the Church out of this one.  His Holiness Benedict XVI will probably limit his foreign traveling for the foreseeable future.

     It's said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The same reasoning may be applied to money.  Originally founded to manage monies gained from a financial settlement paid out by Mussolini's fascist government in 1929 for the Church's loss of the Papal States in 1870, the Institute for Works of Religion (aka the Vatican Bank or “God's Bank”) was designed in 1942 (after combination with the Commission for Works of Charity) as a discretionary spending depository with aid to religious works and charities (both of which have their own distinct departments within the Church), as its publicly stated mission.  And, as banking goes, there's good investments and profits, as well as bad investments and losses.  The discretionary aspect of the Vatican Bank has remained highly secretive and only some details have emerged through litigation (it paid off the creditors of the Banco Ambrosiano collapse in 1982) and allegation (funding Solidarity and the Contras), but mainly the veil has been lifted in recent times through its work with the European Union and its most recent problems with the Bank of Italy (who shut down the credit and debit card purchases at the Vatican for a couple of weeks this past January) over persistent charges of money-laundering (from WW2-era Croatian revolutionaries, to the Masonic P2 lodge and the Mafia in the '70s and early '80s, and continuing to the last couple of years). In one of his final appointments, His Holiness Benedict XVI approved the suggestion of a Commission of Cardinals for the German lawyer and financier, Ernst von Freyberg, to head the troubled Vatican Bank.  Most say the decision was prudent, though there are some that charge it's anti-Italian and that Von Freyberg's family business (ship-building) worked with the Nazis.  It's said that a good name is better than riches ...and it must be difficult when both are in question.

     The next pope will also have to deal with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the 1956 canonically approved American informational and resource organization for the superiors, leaders, and formators (“teachers”) of monasteries (var. convents and nunneries) and congregations, who have increasingly been at loggerheads with the Church over its public encouragement of a better toleration of homosexuality, masturbation, and a greater level of equality between the sexes (which some have termed, incorrectly, feminism).  At no time has the LCWR championed the ordination of women, rallied in support of a woman's right to choose (“abortion”), or even promoted birth control.  Yet, the Church has threatened to decertify the organization (i.e. withdraw its approval) and install a new, less-rebellious version.  Combined with the sex abuse scandal, the disrespect shown to American nuns and sisters has prompted whispers of a coming schism and the creation of an American Catholic Church independent of Rome.  As a lapsed Catholic, I shouldn't claim to have a dog in this fight, but as a hyper-humanist I'm disappointed that the LCWR doesn't promote modern birth control as a prophylactic against STDs.  I hope that the Church and the LCWR work things out.

     Here in Boston there's tavern-talk of Seán Patrick Cardinal O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston as the next pope for his sensitivity and active handling of local sexual abuse cases.  Toward that, his predecessor, the creepy and cowardly Bernard Francis Cardinal Law, who has been hiding out in Rome since 2002, won't be able to vote at the papal conclave as he's 81 and over the age limit.  Thank God for little favors...

Retire in peace, Your Holiness,

Return to