Commentary

Opinion: As papacy turns 5, dark clouds gather

Updated:

BOSTON — Five years ago today, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, all eyes were on the white smoke that curled out of the chimney above the papal residency inside the Vatican.

A new pope had been elected.

“Habemus Papam!” Latin for “We have a pope!”

Or as one of my more cynical colleagues in the American press corps in Rome texted me on my cellphone that day as we both reported the papal transition: “Habemus Nazi!”

News rippled through the crowd in the square that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man once dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” in his role as head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who had served in Hitler Youth as a young seminarian coming of age in Germany — had been elevated to the papacy.

Ratzinger had taken the name Pope Benedict XVI and appeared on the balcony waving to thousands gathered in the square.

From the moment he was elected by the College of Cardinals and their ballots were burned, providing the white smoke that is the signal a pope has been chosen, this pope has been controversial. His election further opened a deep division in the church.

The main fault line runs along the forces of modernity that uphold Vatican II, the council under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s that sought to bring the church more into the modern world, and the forces of conservatism that are aligned with Benedict XVI and believe in the need for a return to orthodoxy.

The more left-leaning side believes that the heart of the message of the Catholic church should be aligned with Jesus’ teaching on a role of social justice in the world and a penchant for the poor. The right-leaning side is concerned with an erosion of moral values in Western societies and seeks to uphold the orthodoxy of the Catholic church against homosexuality, forbidding an enhanced role of women in the church, and making sure the struggle against AIDS does not involve the use of condoms.

It’s a deep fault line within the church and one that many people who are not Catholic — and even many who are — don’t understand very well. It has a long, complicated history. But, according to those historians and journalists who watch the church, the forces on both sides are arrayed in ways that seem more dramatic than ever in this papacy.

As the sex abuse scandals continue to cast a dark shadow over the church and particularly its leadership, there is a growing consensus on the left-leaning side of the church that Benedict XVI’s papacy is irreparably tarnished. There have even been some calls by priests, including one in Massachusetts, for the pope to resign. Don’t hold your breath. It’s not going to happen. At least, not any time soon.

The more right-leaning side of the church has fiercely defended the papacy and rallied around Benedict.

But clearly this is a papacy that has been tone deaf on so many issues, not only the issue of priests as sexual predators but also on relations between the Catholic church and Judaism and some insulting comments made about Islam. This pope has done a great deal to set back the interfaith dialogue which was advanced under Pope John Paul II.

This pope has consistently sought to blame the media for the scandals that are wracking the church. Finally, on Sunday, Benedict XVI spoke clearly and forcefully at a Mass in the tiny, predominantly Catholic country of Malta asking for forgiveness for the sins of the church. He met with victims and said the church would do everything in its power to help them. What took so long?

As this papacy continues to stumble forward, the pope deserves every bit of scrutiny he is under and we in the media should keep asking the hard questions.

But on this fifth anniversary of his papacy, it is also good to be reminded that at the end of the day, the pope is not the church. The church is made up of those who believe in the faith. And everywhere in the world I have traveled as a reporter, in Latin America and Africa and the Middle East, there are Catholic aid agencies working tirelessly on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. In every poor community in urban and rural America, there are Catholic aid agencies and priests and nuns and lay people working hard to help. There is a strong social justice movement within in the church with a long and proud tradition. Nicholas Kristoff did an excellent column Sunday on this “other Catholic Church.” 

Oh, and by the way, the cynical correspondent who texted me from St. Peter’s square? Well, it turns out he was impressed with these works of the church, and when he married a Catholic woman just about five years ago he converted to Catholicism from the Protestant faith into which he was born. True story. He’s Catholic now but he has definitely kept his irreverent sense of humor, and these days you need a sense of humor to remain a Catholic.