Rumors run rampant about the resignation of the recent pope, Mr. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI. Since he hasn’t officially stepped down yet—it’s more like a papal two-weeks notice, not effective until Feb. 28—it’s worth considering the factors that went into such an unprecedented action, and what it might mean for the rest of the Roman Catholic Church. It is, after all, the first time in 598 years that a pope has stepped down and everyone is clamoring and speculating as to why.
One suggestion has been shame. Ratzinger was personally responsible for actively protecting priests who had raped children as the head of the “Congregatio pro doctrina Fidei,” the branch of the Vatican responsible for purity of doctrine, formerly known by the slightly pretentious and more infamous name, the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” It was during this time, specifically in 2001, that Ratzinger instructed Bishops to conduct investigations of such allegations “in the most secretive way…restrained by a perpetual silence” and that the grave crime of reporting offending priests to non-church authorities was to be absolutely avoided, “under the penalty of excommunication.” For those less familiar with Catholic doctrine, the pope is supposedly endowed with the keys to the gates of heaven. Excommunication is, theologically speaking, damnation to eternal hellfire. Don’t protect those children, whatever you do.
Given the fact that this imposition of enforced secrecy didn’t seem to work, it might be reasonable to assume that the pope is stepping down out of embarrassment. Protecting pedophiles isn’t exactly good for the pope’s PR.
Mr. Ratzinger’s stance on contraception might be another plausible explanation for his decision. The official Catholic stance on condom use in Africa was essentially, ‘AIDS may be bad, but condom use is much worse.’ It’s difficult to calculate just how destructive such a belief has been in the last several decades, but it’s hard to imagine the preventable death toll being lower than a million. Such a destructive interpretation of moral priorities, brought to light in recent years, could have a similar effect on the public image of the papal office. Perhaps this would be enough for the pope to feel forced to resign.
If either of these were the case, it would be a bright day for the Catholic Church as a global organization. Working in secret, hidden from the prying eyes of the world it influences so heavily is an archaic and broken model from the last century. Sadly, it may be a possibility that the pope is telling the truth; that he is retiring solely because he doesn’t particularly feeling up to the job of doing whatever it is that the pope does.
The Catholic Church has an enormous opportunity to right itself, at least partially, in the eyes of the world and it would be a shame if they squandered such an opportunity in a vain attempt to save face. In a growing world of transparency, it’s no longer possible to hide behind a veil of infallibility and the Church would be much better off doing its best to make amends for its wrongs instead of trying to hide them.