Pope Ratzinger, we hardly knew ye
Growing up Catholic, the Pope always seemed like the weakest link in the chain. I remember being 9 and someone talking about the Medicis and how they had pretty much bought the papacy for a good solid century. The remark was offhand, venality set against these supposedly enlightened times of ours, but in my mind it became a chink in the infallibility of the Catholic Church that would soon become a hole and then a tear and then a gaping chasm into which the last vestiges of my belief vanished at the age of 15.
Teenaged and angry, my disbelief grew from the very human misdeeds of the Church much more than it did from the idea of Jesus or God. My brother, on a similar path to me, came back from a European tour and his one sentence summary of the filthily opulent Vatican was "Jesus would not have been caught dead in there". Gilt in gold and jewels, it's a place of needless wealth, supposedly built to honour God. But Jesus knew what was what. He knew that such edifices of inequality are the product of men who worship themselves, not God. Replete with dress code, the people who might most be in need of Jesus' charity are no longer welcome.
I came of age in the reign of Pope John Paul II. When he died, the frothing of the world's media as they raced to preemptively canonise the man was quite incredible to watch. The world's Pope they called him, the most travelled Catholic leader in history. Not entirely surprising considering how rapidly his empire was fragmenting. Like a general visiting the far flung outer outposts of his army, a papal visit functioned as a morale booster for the national flock, a request not to abandon the cause no matter what the odds of survival. But he was the world's Pope in another, more telling way: he was the Pope that resigned himself to the loss of the Western world, the Pope who admitted that the survival of the Catholic Church lay in further colonising the poorer, less educated corners of the globe. As he described it, a "universal call to holiness".
While the obituaries talked of his egalitarian rule, few talked of the brute human cost of Catholic doctrine on these newly important flocks. The soaring rates of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa can be in no small part laid at the doorstep of John Paul's prohibition on contraception. Similarly, he continued the Catholic Church's proud tradition of covering up child abuse. A big one for photo ops he may have been, but his legacy is far more uncomfortable than the smiling crowds would have you believe.
Then came Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. Even the fact that he's the 16th of his name suggests how deep his conservatism runs. For him the priority was a reclamation of Church tradition and ceremony. As opposed to say rendering the Catholic Church relevant in a rapidly modernising world. He was a man the world never really warmed to, a wilfully austere, ultra-orthodox Catholic who once held the position of Chief Inquisitor. (Yes, the Spanish Inquisition may have gotten a bad rap, but that office still very much exists.) He also had the sort of face which you'd draw if you were creating a children's villain. Which seems apt considering the maelstrom of sexual abuse scandals that enveloped the Church over the course of his reign.
From the outside, these eight years read like an unmitigated disaster (and they undoubtedly have been, in terms of the Catholic Church's broader influence), yet by sticking to orthodoxy and expunging those who disagreed, Ratzinger has succeeded in further centralizing the power of the Vatican while simultaneously dooming it to irrelevance. It's the rearguard measure of a king who knows his realm is fragmenting – withdraw and consolidate. Shut down dissent and shore up the remaining territories.
You know the economy is bad when even God is laying people off. #pope— Sarcastic Scouser (@MichaelGareth) February 11, 2013
Now with his resignation Ratzinger has ensured the continuation of the Church's slow withdrawal. Still in effective control of the College of Cardinals, his choice of replacement will be as inevitable as any the Medici's might have facilitated. Someone just like him. Backwards looking, nostalgic for a time they can all still remember, when the Catholic Church had the clout to bring world leaders to heel. So they rebuild this sand castle exactly where it was, oblivious to the rising tide picking at its foundations.
The thing is, the Catholic Church does a lot of good work. The religious remain at the forefront of volunteer efforts in most of the world's nations and the Catholic Church in particular has long had a history of charitable endeavour. Well, at least its lower echelon has – that is, the people who in their day to day lives draw some light from the Catholic idea of God. And herein lies the tragedy of a religion that stil lays claim to being the world's largest: that a philosophy built upon the unarguable goods of selflessness, peace and love can be so thoroughly contaminated by a manmade monolith interested primarily in its own survival. That the positive aspects of religious affiliation are allowed to be tarnished by this hulking beast, when it has so little to do with an individual's faith as to be rightfully considered an entirely different concept.
Yet the Church still obtains, dragging the human faith of its people down with it. Ratzinger's departure can be applauded for his removal, but reform may never come. As fewer people find themselves attracted to the ministry, those that remain are likely to be the firebrands, the zealots and fundamentalists. The fools who can convince themselves that only by skewing ever further into the arcane depths of their religion will they be able to reclaim the power they once held. But Jesus knew more than most that the vanities of men count for little in the eyes of God. Long gone from faith as I might be, the slow, self-imposed corrosion of the Church seems like a good reminder of this fact.