Sunday World Newsletter
Sign up for the latest news and updates
‘Had Benedict not resigned he and his clerical clique would have excommunicated me’
Much has been written this week about Pope Benedict. In the past, it was customary not to speak ill of the dead. I respect that custom, yet it is also necessary to tell the truth or at least not to tell lies.
I need to be honest with you the reader here. It was during the reign of Benedict that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith attempted to silence me (and four other Irish priests, all of whom were members of the Religious Orders). I don’t know if Benedict ordered the witch hunt or whether it was carried out by his clerical minions. It doesn’t matter because it was Vatican Policy anyway.
What I can say is that it was a horrible experience which I have thankfully left behind me now. I carry no grudge against Benedict. He has now met a more merciful God than the one he sometimes preached.
There are opposing opinions about Benedict – as there are about all leaders. One sees him as the one who restored orthodoxy to the Catholic Church; the other view is that he insisted on orthodoxy at the expense of Pastoral compassion. Both judgements are partly true. No human is perfect; we all make mistakes whether we admit it or not.
As a young theologian, Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) advised German bishops to promote reform at the Second Vatican Council. He wrote speeches for German Bishops severely criticizing the Holy Office, the Vatican department responsible for defending the faith. He said its methods of silencing prominent theologians prior to the Second Vatican Council was "a source of scandal to the world." Later as a Cardinal, he headed the Holy Office and sadly carried out a purge of theologians he disagreed with.
It is clear that Benedict sacrificed his life as a professional theologian to answer the call of Pope John Paul II. He became the voice of repression on behalf of Pope John Paul II. He also sacrificed a life of scholarly retirement when he was elected Pope at the age of 78.
During his life, he changed from being a brave progressive theologian in his youth to becoming, quite early on in his life, the voice of Conservatism.
Ratzinger abandoned teaching at the Liberal Tübingen University for the more conservative University of Regensburg. He admitted he couldn’t cope with students who continually challenged him. Nor could he accept the rough and tumble of academic debate. He was the expert who knew best. There was a Jesuit priest who brought a group of Americans to meet Benedict at a papal audience and introduced the pope as "my friend." The pope corrected him: "You were my student, not my friend."
I have long held that the suppression and the secrecy which existed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict were disastrous for the church. It is arguable that we will never fully recover from them. We needed the freedom to find new ways to explain faith to people in the 21st century. The window of opportunity was small and we missed it.
Yet it must also be said that whatever his reasons for resigning from the papacy, it was both the most courageous and the most correct decision. He was open at that time to the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit and was brave enough to follow it through. It will be his greatest contribution, making it possible for popes to resign in the future. What was once unthinkable, is now acceptable.
I don’t doubt that Benedict was a humble man who wanted what was best for the church. He was humble enough to recognise that the Holy Spirit would guide the church without him.
Benedict got to know that clerical politics at its worst conspired to elect him Pope and had become an unmanageable evil within the Church. His legacy is a mixed bag.
Few priests or interested lay people will forget how he made liturgy virtually irrelevant when he ignored the advice of translation experts, preferring instead literal translations which simply cannot be meaningfully read out loud.
On the other hand, Benedict did advance the church in its handling of clerical sex abuse. He gathered relevant details of abuse from Bishops all over the world and eventually advised them to hand over all investigations to the civil authorities. Hundreds of abusive priests were dismissed.
He advised John Paul II to dismiss Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial child abuser and rapist who founded and led the rich Legionaries of Christ Order. John Paul refused. Less than a year after he became Pope Benedict dismissed Degollado and investigated the whole Order.
The details of the mounting toll of abuse shocked and troubled him. He could and did spell out the damage this would do to the Church’s credibility. He pointed an accusing finger at various hierarchies, including Ireland. Yet he failed to accept that Rome was ultimately responsible for this systemic failure.
I have no doubt that I was censured because I had the audacity to highlight The Vatican’s failure to protect children. I was just one of many who clearly saw the Church’s willingness to sacrifice innocent children simply to preserve the Vatican’s reputation. Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and Popes will never be forgiven for what they did to children and to Christ’s good name. Nor should we be forgiven.
Mad as it seems, it was a photocopy of my article in the Sunday World which was used to condemn me. I now realise that had Benedict not resigned he and his clerical clique would have excommunicated me.
Benedict, as a Bishop, Cardinal and Pope falsely exalted the position of Catholic priests, holding them to be above the lay faithful. If you are one of the many believers who suffer from young(ish), clerical dictators, in your area, you know the damage this false view of priesthood perpetuates. It has led to a general malaise in a Church which seems to have disengaged from the real world.
Just before his resignation, Benedict gave us an insight into his own frame of mind. He said the papacy was a great weight on his shoulders. “I felt like St Peter and the Apostles in the boat in the Sea of Galilee…The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and a light breeze, the days when fishing is plentiful. But there were also times when the water was rough…and the Lord seemed to be sleeping.”
I like the verdict of Sister Sharon Holland an American Canon Lawyer who worked with Benedict in the Vatican. “The generosity, intelligence and integrity of Pope Benedict were crowned by his last papal act of courage and humility,” she said. “His resignation.”