Zero Hour at the Vatican A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church
With Pope Benedict XVI's resignation drawing closer, the struggle for power in the Vatican has gotten underway in earnest. The church badly needs to reform itself, but with Ratzinger lurking in the shadows, will it be able to? By SPIEGEL Staff
Naked and goaded viciously by hornets and wasps, his blood sucked by loathsome worms. Such was the fate of a pope in Dante's "Divine Comedy" who "by his cowardice made the great refusal."
Benedict XVI, in short, knew what could happen to one who rebelled against a centuries-old tradition in a church in which suffering is far from foreign. But he also knew that it wasn't just a matter of his own suffering -- it was a matter of the exhaustion, weakness and sickness of the church at large.
The pope from Bavaria has given up. Nevertheless, when he announced his resignation last Monday, hastily and almost casually mumbling the words as if he were saying a rosary, as if he were returning the keys to a rental car rather than the keys to St. Peter, there was still a sense of how deeply his move has shaken the Catholic empire.
Archbishop of Berlin Rainer Maria Woelki calls it a "demystification of the papal office." Already, he says, the pope's resignation has changed the church.
So was it an act of liberation? A handful of bishops have, cautiously, made their voices heard. Gebhard Fürst, the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, called for reforms to promote the advancement of women. Although he didn't demand that women be allowed to become priests, Fürst did suggest that more women assume leadership positions in the church.
German bishops will convene for their spring meeting in the southwestern city of Trier this week. Conflicting groups are already taking shape within the German church, with fundamentalists battling reformers, and with everyone anxiously determined to preserve or expand his vested rights under a new pontiff.
And the desire for change is palpable. "A pope can be a theologian, a minister or a general," says a prominent German cardinal, and he makes it clear that he has seen enough of philosopher-popes for now. "A general is needed to lead the universal church."
A shift is taking place in the otherwise immovable Catholic Church. A global struggle has begun over the prerogative of interpretation, opportunities, legacy and positions -- a silent battle for Rome.
The ultimate effects of the pope's resignation are thus far impossible to predict. But it is clear that previous certainties will now be up for debate -- certainties that were once just as firm as the understanding that the position of pope was for life.
In the modern age, a pope has never resigned from the office, one that some believe is the most important on earth. There hasn't been an ex-pontiff since the last years of the Schism, after Gregory XII and the Avignon pope agreed to resign to reunite the church. That was the last time that an ex-pope spent the rest of his days strolling around the Vatican gardens as nothing but a simple brother. Never before has the decision of a single pope presented such a challenge to the Catholic Church as this one. Zero hour has begun at the Vatican. The pope's resignation was certainly "great" within Dante's meaning. But it was not made through cowardice. On the contrary, it was probably the most courageous step in a long-drifting papacy marred by scandals and misunderstandings.
With his revolt against tradition and the church machinery, Benedict XVI may have brought more change to the church than he did in the seven years and 10 months of his papal reign.
Benedict has repeatedly raged against a "dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." And this is the man who is now weakening the office of pope, making it dependent on human deficits and efficiency?
If, as Benedict implied in his statement of resignation, the office is too difficult for one man in the modern world, power must then be ceded to Catholic bishops and to world regions. If the Petrine office can be vacated like a seat in parliament, then it's time to put an end to the church's rigid stance on other questions of doctrine. Why exactly should spouses remain together until death if the pope can simply resign from his post?
And if Benedict now assumes the right of resignation, shouldn't every future pope expect to face demands for his resignation, not unlike a politician, when he becomes infirm or is deficient in the discharge of his office?
It's no surprise that some at the Vatican have a bad feeling about the questions that will face Rome in the coming weeks. The pope's decision to elevate his person above his position presents a challenge to the entire Vatican system. Last week, a prelate suggested shunting the ex-pope to a monastery in Germany, in other words, as far away from Rome as possible.
Pope Benedict had hoped to bring the listing ship of the Catholic Church back onto an even keel with clear directives, even if that meant a shrinking crew. He sought to counteract the church's general dissolution by focusing on core issues. He had hoped to revive faith with reason or, to use the Greek term, logos.
Instead, more and more dirt came to light, and Benedict was confronted with a growing lack of understanding. After an endless series of scandals, he must have realized that the office was too much for him.
"It was," the Italian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Dario Fo said on Thursday, "the attrition in the curia, Vatileaks and all the sharks who surrounded the pope, spied on and betrayed him. Age certainly isn't the only thing that burdens him."
On Ash Wednesday, when everything was almost over, Benedict XVI is sitting, hunched over, in St. Peter's Basilica, dressed entirely in purple, the liturgical color of atonement. He seems tiny under the bronze canopy by Bernini. Gregorian chants mingle with calls from the nave. "Viva il Papa," say the faithful, as they stand up and applaud for several minutes. They form a cordon through which he is rolled toward the exit in the wheeled platform he uses because of knee pain. He seems calm and tired, but also relieved. He apologizes for his mistakes. He can do that now, because he has nothing left to lose. In stepping down from his post, the pope seems strong, almost modern. Benedict has also lightened the load for his successors. Now, future popes will not have to face being dragged out of his Vatican office on a stretcher, like someone dying in a hospice.
There is something rebellious about Benedict's action. If it is God who calls someone to the throne, abandoning the post voluntarily can be seen acting against God's will.
A Series of Last Words
Pope Paul VI once compared his job to fatherhood -- something that was impossible to give up. "One does not step down from the cross," John Paul II reportedly said. The traditional view is that the body of the pope is not his alone. As with an absolute monarch, the office and the body are inseparable.
There were signs, but few interpreted them as such. During a visit to the Italian region of Abruzzo, why did Benedict lay the pallium, the papal woolen cloak, in front of the altar containing the relics of St. Celestine? Celestine was the only one of his predecessors who had voluntarily resigned, an act for which Dante had apparently banished him to hell. Did Benedict see the hermit pope as a kindred spirit?
But no one was paying attention, just as no one had paid attention to the pope in light of the commotion surrounding the church. Benedict spoke quietly and softly, and yet his words were chosen as carefully as if they were to be set in stone. For those who listened, his message was clear: It was a series of last words.
This was especially evident in the way he addressed German Catholics. On his visit to Germany, he warned of the need to take greater care of God's creation, one of several forays into ecology. In Freiburg, he advocated "de-secularization" and called upon Catholics not to adhere to structures. But there was no response to his efforts. The German episcopate also ignored the "Year of Faith" he proclaimed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
Tired and worn down, he completed his final tasks. He made his longtime confidant and loyal friend Georg Gänswein an archbishop, and he ensured that a conservative dogmatist, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Bavarian city of Regensburg, would assume leadership of the Vatican's doctrinal office.
At the very beginning of his term in office, Benedict spoke of the "yoke of Christ" that he was now assuming, and of the willingness to suffer. But even then, in his inaugural mass, he said ominously: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."