There probably could not have been a tougher time to rise to the papacy than in the current era. And for a pope like
Benedict XVI, there must have been a lot more to give him headache than just old age and declining strength.
It is in the past eight to 10 years, a time the Roman Catholic Church has largely spent under Pope Benedict’s leadership,
that allegation after allegation of child sex abuse by Catholic priests became even more prominent. It was a publicity nightmare as the revelations erupted like scripted germinating seedlings from across the world: North
America to Europe to Australia and to next-door Kenya and Tanzania.
It is in the same period that the vocal voice of liberal Catholicism became even louder, demanding changes in such
fundamental Catholic doctrine as enthronement of women priests, allowing priests to marry and support for homosexuality.
And in the end, it will be difficult to convince many that some of these issues did not have an impact, however small, in
ending the pope’s reign prematurely.
Pope Benedict XVI oversaw the Catholic Church at a time when its growth in the number of believers had stalled, even
reversed in places like Europe. Islam, on the other hand, was and still is rising faster. It thus did not help Pope
Benedict’s legacy that numerous cases of child-sex-abuse, many committed way before his reign, continued coming to the
limelight just as he was taking his seat. But what made the situation worse for the Church was not that the abuse was done,
but that it seemed to have protected offending priests from criminal prosecution, choosing just to transfer many from one
parish to another.
The effect of these scandals on the Church is one that was never lost on the Pope. He confessed to a London audience that
the scandals had brought shame and humiliation on the Church and on himself. He called it sin within the church.
Proponents of liberal Catholicism connected the child-sex-abuse scandal to having a team of celibate priests who, in deed,
could not control sexual urges. But this only gave Pope Benedict a chance to restate and reaffirm the Church’s conservative
roots. He denounced suggestions to ordain women priests, decried proposals of ordaining non-celibate priests, condemned
abortion even in the face of criticism that the Church was out of touch with its flock today.
When he made his first visit to Africa, in 2009, the Pope told a number of reporters before landing in Cameroon, that
condoms were not a solution to HIV/Aids. He never changed his stance on the use of contraceptives, generally, and this only
placed him more as part of the conservative block. His comments about condom use, in a continent where two thirds of the
world’s HIV-positive generation is found, drew criticism, from fellow religious leaders to development workers.
But if the Roman Catholic Church’s establishment was facing a backslash, especially in Western societies, from liberal
Catholicism, there was a warm embrace from Africa and South America, where its conservative stances were more at home. It is a feat that the Pope took note of. He highlighted the two continents as the two leading frontiers for the growth of the
Catholic Church, as compared to Europe.
The Pope’s troubles crept close into his inner circle. This took the form of his butler, Paolo Gabrielle, who stole files
revealing corruption high up in the circles of the Vatican’s leadership, and leaked them to the press. The scandal brought
embarrassment to a Church that already had enough bad news to deal with.
Pope Benedict now moves on to a retirement that will save him from the arduous work of shepherding a world-wide Church. But the communion of the Roman Catholic Church, especially its leadership, is not saved from its predicament by his departure.
When the council of Cardinal Fathers wakes up on March 1, they will find that the same problems Pope Benedict faced, the
clash of worldviews between conservatives and liberals, the troubles of dwindling numbers of the Church’s faithful are
staring at them straight in the face. And a resignation will not take these away.