In a shock announcement today, just eight years into his papacy, Pope Benedict declared he will resign on February 28th due to old age. Whatever the reason for his departure, it can only be a good thing for the Catholic Church and the world at large that this relic of a bygone era is no longer the go to guy for opinion on the biggest issues in our world today. Here are some reasons why…
Contraception, AIDS and Africa
According to Avert, the international HIV/AIDs charity, in 2010 there were 22.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS in sub Saharan Africa (the bit below the Sahara desert). In the same year, AIDS become the leading cause of death in the region, killing some 1.2 million people in that year alone, whilst 1.9 million new people were infected. In Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland more than one in five adults is infected with HIV/AIDS. This life ending disease is simply ravaging the continent and unprotected sex is a significant factor in its transmission (but by no means is the only factor – mother to child transmission the most significant).
In the context of this, clear leadership from political and religious leaders is critical, given the unsurprising suspicion western medical advice can be received with in Africa.
On his first visit to the continent as Pontiff, Pope Benedict bemoaned the sorry afflictions of the region:
“It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, it’s very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality,”. To rank contraception, the promotion of which would vastly reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, alongside such egregious items as human trafficking is quite outrageous…even for the Pope. To be fair, after global outcry, he softened his tone in 2010:
“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.” Sigh.
The Child Abuse Scandal
Pope Benedict was tasked with overseeing the largest scandal to hit the Catholic Church in living memory, if not ever. It was revealed in 2010 that members of the church had been actively involved in the covering up of child abuse for decades. Priests and clerics found to be molesting children, rather than facing criminal prosecution, were left to the inadequate Canon Law of the Vatican and in many cases simply moved to molest somewhere else. One cannot underestimate the damage that this behaviour and the consequent cover up has done to the Catholic church; lay Catholics left to answer for an institution which had so bitterly abused their trust. The Pope’s ability to lead the Church through one of the darkest periods in history was heavily compromised by his own role in perpetuating the scandal itself. In his former role as Cardinal Ratzinger, he oversaw the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 22 years, the unit given authority over abuse cases in 1922. During his tenure, Ratzinger did not exert this authority once. Not in one of the cases causing growing concern in Ireland, the US, Australia, or anywhere else. While local bishops and laity issued warnings that the Vatican needed to take a faster, firmer line on the growing epidemic of abuse, nothing was done before the scandal broke. Since then, some moderate changes have been made to Canon Law and the Vatican continues to investigate abuse claims at its own glacial pace, while outside her hallowed walls victims and empathisers clamour for so much more.
The Catholic Church through the 1970’s had begun to make more welcoming noises on the issue of homosexuality. There had long been a conflict between catechism #2357 which describes homosexuality as a ‘disorder’ and #2358 which states that “They (homosexuals) must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. However, at the ascension of John Paul II the church took a hard swing against homosexuality and Cardinal Ratzinger issued the following Letter in 1986 signalling this change in attitude in some of the harshest language used by the Vatican on the issue:
“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed to those who have this condition; lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”
Twenty six years later and the now Pope Benedict had not moderated his views in any way. He took the opportunity of his Christmas address of 2012, to rail against the incoming legislation on Equal Marriage and homosexuality itself.
“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being,” he said. “They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.”
He also used his annual peace message to state that in his view, like abortion and euthanasia, homosexuality was a threat to world peace.
Quite how these attacks constitute the ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ required by the catechism, well, your guess is as good as mine.
Atheists are Nazis
It is fairly commonplace to hear Ratzinger described as a former Nazi. This is based on his membership of the Hitler Youth as a young man, and his later military service for Nazi germany. While this proves that technically Ratzinger WAS a Nazi, it does not prove he was a Nazi sympathiser. These things are different. Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, when it was legally mandated that all children joined. So it cannot be taken alone as an indication of personal endorsement of Nazi ideology. Whilst I grant the Pope this understanding, he failed to do the same for me and fellow atheists when he appeared to suggest that modern day secularism was comparable to the Nazi holocaust. Speaking in his opening address to the Queen of England, at Holyrood House in Edinburgh in 2010, he stated:
“Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.
“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”
I do not wish to get into some Dawkins style tit for tat row about the imbalance in relative harms between atheist extremism and religious extremism – rather I’d like to just be thoroughly disappointed that a man espoused to have the intelligence of Ratzinger could make such a baseless, simple minded generalisation. It’s not just offensive, it’s ridiculous.
So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye!
No Pope in modern times has stood down in this way. In fact, it is the first papal resignation in 600 years and obviously there is concern that there is some scandalous reason for the sudden resignation. I hope this is not the case, I hope there are not more victims out there of some ghastly thing we are yet to be made aware of.
However, it is for his choice to waste his papacy on such cold hearted attacks, rather than to focus the vast wealth and efforts of the church to matters of social justice that I am personally ecstatic to wave off this god awful (no pun intended) Pope. As an atheist, I have no vested interest in who becomes the next Pope from a position of faith. But as a member of the human race, in a world which still recognises faith leaders as leading opinion formers, I have a big interest in which man gets to wear the pointy hat next. Let’s face it; no Pope is going to be good enough for me. But I do hope for a Pope worthy of the sections of the Catholic Church and laity that I have come to respect, despite our irreconcilable differences of opinion on the matter of divinity.