He Didn’t Finish What He Started

Pope Benedict set out to reform a Catholic Church in tatters—but failed.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful gathered at the Colosseum.
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful gathered at the Colosseum during the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday April 6, 2012, in Rome.

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Although Pope Benedict XVI’s highly unusual resignation is said to be for reasons of health, it fits the character of his papacy: All his initiatives remain incomplete. He was consciously elected to rescue the church from itself, but he failed to finish what he started.

The onrushing assessments of his papacy have so far focused on Pope Benedict’s statements on homosexuality, contraception, and other controversial church teachings. This helps us locate him (and the church) on a familiar political spectrum but tells us little beyond the fact that the Pope is a faithful Catholic. After all, these are not “policies” that a future Pope can change with a penstroke. If we really want to understand Benedict’s papacy, we have to understand the wrecked church he inherited and his limited powers within it.

Although the New York Times describes him as a “profoundly conservative” figure, Joseph Ratzinger made his first impression as a member of good standing in the liberal wing of “periti” (experts) at the Second Vatican Council during the early 1960s. He wore a suit and tie rather than a clerical collar to the proceedings. He was given to the bold—and often unsubstantiated—pronouncements of his generation of theologians. The world celebrated the changes Ratzinger’s cohort helped to effect at Vatican II. And the Vatican II reforms and the charged post-Conciliar spirit were seen as the answer to a problem that was conspicuously on the mind of theologians and apologists since the late 19th century: How should the church engage with “modern man?”

Apparently, “modern man” was unimpressed by Vatican II. He left the church. After Catholic, “Ex-Catholic” has become the second largest “religious affiliation” in America. Two-thirds of U.S. seminaries operating in 1965 had closed by 2002. During those same years the number of seminarians dropped from 49,000 to 4,700—more than 90 percent. In Europe, the decline is even more dramatic.*

The meaning of the council itself became subjected to enormous debate within the church. Was it, as progressive theologians like Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx hoped, the first opening of a new age in the church, where previously solid dogma about the Mass, the sacraments, and the male priesthood would dissolve? Or was it the disastrous rupture with the past that should be repudiated, as traditionalists maintained? In 1972 Ratzinger founded the theological journal Communio with theologians who charted a course between those two poles. Their position was that the Thomistic theology of the late 19th century was inadequate for the times but that the more radical theologians writing in the rival journal Concilium were throwing out the baby with the baptismal font.

By the time Benedict was elected to captain the bark of Peter in 2005, the church had gone aground. Pope John Paul II’s papacy was the partial cause. After a period of activity in the 1980s, the former actor’s papacy consisted of enormously dramatic, but unexplained gestures like praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or giving the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury a pectoral cross. John Paul II either did not understand or denied the gravity of the child-abuse crisis. He often elevated prelates who deserved to be sacked into positions of new authority within the church. But his charismatic presence and the enormous goodwill toward the Parkinson’s-afflicted pontiff overshadowed his failures of governance. Of his papacy, one would say, he traveled while Rome burned.

That Ratzinger emerged to succeed him was a shock at the time but makes sense in retrospect. A persistent theme of conversation among cardinals heading into the 2005 conclave was the need to repair the “internal governance” of the church. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition), Ratzinger had impressed his fellow Cardinals with his handling of doctrinal dissenters (several contributors to Concilium included), as well as his move to finally centralize the handling of sexual abuse cases in his own office—a move that has been criticized but dramatically sped the process of defrocking priests and removing them from ministry. Ratzinger said at the time that he was confronting “the filth” within the priesthood, a job no one else particularly wanted. Ratzinger also seemed more charismatic in the days after John Paul II’s death. He gave a militant homily at the papal funeral about the need for the church to face down “the dictatorship of relativism … that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s own ego and one’s own desires as the final measure.” A respected and now a much more careful theologian, Ratzinger could give the church intellectual ballast once again.

The new Pope Benedict had set for himself two missions for his papacy. The first was to finally return basic competence to the machinery of church governance. Within 60 days (lightning fast for the church) he had moved against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, head of the enormously influential (and wealthy) Legion of Christ movement. Maciel was a favorite churchman of John Paul II. But Benedict ordered him into silence and withdrawal from public life in the church, and investigations turned up many instances of Maciel sexually assaulting children, including two of his own six biological children. Maciel had also funneled church funds to at least two mistresses.

But Benedict has rarely moved that decisively since. Benedict has always believed in the Vatican II concept of “collegiality,” which assumes that other cardinals and bishops have authority and even some autonomy from the Pope. This conviction meant that Benedict was never going to aggressively “clean house,” felling malefactors with thunderbolts from Peter’s chair. Most of his personnel changes have been accomplished through attrition and the normal process of appointment. And yet, the work seems only half-finished. The disgraced ogre of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, (as of now) retains his vote in the next conclave. The election will be run by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who also has a mixed record on responding to abuse.

Benedict has also walked a precarious middle course, theologically speaking. He has imposed on the Vatican II documents an interpretive tool that he calls “the hermeneutic of continuity.” He claims, contra progressives and traditionalists, that Vatican II was not a break with Catholic tradition at all. In other words, apparent changes of church teaching in the council documents on subjects like whether nation-states should be confessionally Catholic, or whether the Catholic Church is the only true church were not substantial repudiations of past doctrine, but updated expressions of traditional teaching. This “hermeneutic” idea seems to be taking hold in the intellectual life of the church. For example, as part of his effort to make this continuity concept real to everyday Catholics, he liberalized use of the Traditional Latin Mass, though it remains uncommon. He encouraged reform of the new vernacular Mass, in line with the old. But those reforms have been timid and slow.

He tried, unsuccessfully, to cauterize the wound opened up by excommunication of the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist breakaway group led by four (now three) bishops. By allowing high-level doctrinal talks with them, he legitimized the theological complaints of these clumsy European reactionaries. One of their bishops, a Holocaust denier, has since been banished from the society but helped to torpedo that reconciliation on his way out. It’s unlikely that Benedict’s successor will be as anxious to try again.

His same drive toward greater Christian unity also prompted him to unilaterally create a space for disaffected Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while retaining their distinctive liturgy. But the governance of this “Anglican Ordinariate” has hardly any resources, and remains practically grounded. As with the Society of St. Pius X, Benedict has outlined a goal but has not seen it through to completion.

A fruitful task for Vaticanologists will be sorting through the frustrations of Pope Benedict XVI. His personal butler was used as a spy against him. Rumors circulate that his orders were occasionally “misplaced” by his top aides. The papacy itself was perhaps an uncomfortable fit for him.

If Benedict is leaving his initiatives to a successor, his legacy may be the very fact of his resignation. He was elected to right the ship after a time when it was led by a man nearly incapacitated by illness. Perhaps Benedict feared leaving the church rudderless again. But he leaves his work incomplete.

Correction, Feb. 13, 2013: This article originally stated the number of seminarians has dropped by “nearly 90 percent.” It has dropped by more than 90 percent. (Return to the corrected sentence.)