Yes, Pope Benedict XVI came into the Vatican with a reputation as “God’s Rottweiler.” Yes, he is an arch-conservative who has seemed to care a lot more about liturgical orthodoxy than the plight of the church’s progressives. Yes, he hasn’t escaped the shadow of the superstar and sanctified pope who preceded him. And yes, he has largely failed in his placeholder pontificate to establish an emotional connection with the billion people he has led as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
But Benedict’s astonishing announcement Monday morning that he would be the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign spoke directly to his less-acknowledged, but perhaps more enduring and important, legacy in one of the world’s most hermetic institutions: a modicum of accountability.
The pope who came to prominence for his theological genius and doctrinal enforcement has distinguished himself within the Vatican for his unexpected willingness to bring greater transparency to the Roman Curia, a gerontocracy populated by department heads who oversee church governance with little to no accountability.
By telling cardinals Monday that “in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict, 85, essentially argued that something as mundane as management is important enough to sacrifice the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
“The pope made his decision out of love for the church,” said Greg Burke, the communications director for the Vatican. “It was a decision made out of humility and responsibility.”
In his eight years as pope, Benedict has become most known for his public relations fiascoes, from accidentally insulting Islam to unknowingly lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust denier to suggesting that condoms are acceptable for male prostitutes. His tin ear to the modern world and his lack of magnetism made him an easy mark, but they also were distractions from his efforts within the church hierarchy.
While his critics charge that he did not use the full weight of his office to hold bishops and cardinals accountable for protecting child abusers in the priesthood, he took substantially greater steps than John Paul II to rid the church of what he called the “filth” of the sex abuse scandal. And though hardly anybody besides close followers of his pontificate noticed, Benedict enacted a 2010 Motu Proprio— Latin for a papal decree of “his own impulse” — that called for greater transparency in the church’s financial practices to combat money laundering and, more broadly, the church’s reputation for corruption. The decree allowed for the vetting of church accounts by outside Council of Europe inspectors, a regular practice for modern governments but a revolutionary one for a millennia-old institution in which privacy is paramount.
That glasnost was not universally embraced in the Vatican, where many officials think the pope went too far to appease the outside world. There is a strong current of thought within the Curia that if the church has survived this long with a medieval approach to governance, why buckle to outside demands now?
But there is also a competing view: If the church hopes to expand its flock in countries riddled by corruption, it first needs to clean up its act at home. Benedict has seemed to understand this.
But in an atmosphere in which petty politics often obscure the big picture, the pope also seemed incapable of fighting the institutional reluctance to reform.
His No. 2 official, Tarcisio Bertone, the church’s secretary of state and de facto prime minister, was surrounded by other church leaders who often seemed more interested in their own agendas than in reform. The internecine battle between those powerful officials and the reformers recently spilled into the open through the most shocking of security breaches.
The pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, leaked the pontiff’s most intimate documents and correspondence, setting off a scandal that came to be known as Vatileaks. Officials in the church were deeply dismayed and embarrassed. But the media, almost helpfully, paid more attention to the whodunit aspect of the scandal than the substance of the documents, which showed in excruciating detail the power plays between the reformers and the reactionaries.
In the most famous of the leaked letters, Carlo Maria Vigano, whom Benedict in 2009 appointed the de facto mayor of Vatican City, complained about top officials preventing his efforts to clean up the city-state. Bertone fired him.
“My transfer right now,” Vigano wrote in one of the letters, “would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments.”
But Benedict shipped him off regardless, sending him to the United States as his nuncio; he has a headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue, the equivalent of the Holy See in exile.
The butler’s leaks also showed how top Vatican officials entrusted by the pope to enact his reforms succeeded in stripping his financial watchdog agency of teeth and blocking many of his efforts. Vigano and the butler both complained that the pope was being kept in the dark.
Ultimately, Benedict stood by Bertone. But cardinals, bishops and other officials in the Vatican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, feel strongly that the pope was led astray by his closest advisers and bemoan a management crisis in the church.
It is notable, then, that in his statement Monday at a routine public consistory to approve the canonization of new saints, the pope put his historic announcement in a management context. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” he said, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
History may barely remember a pope who did not overcome a stigma as a member of the Hitler Youth, the hapless leader who came after John Paul II and possibly before the church’s first New World pontiff. But it may recall a man who cared enough about getting his ship in order that he stepped aside, so that a stronger hand could steer it.