Sunday, March 03, 2013

Evidence, Please

In the week leading up to the present sede vacante, the media -- notably but by no means exclusively the Italian press -- have been making some wild claims about Benedict XVI's renunciation of the papal office.  We do wish that they would produce some evidence.

A nice example, in English, is recent Daily Mail think piece by John Cornwell.  Evocatively entitled  "Gay sex rings, 'The Filth' corrupting the Vatican...and why the Pope REALLY quit," the gist is pretty easy to take in at a glance.

Cornwell was raised Catholic, lapsed, and has since returned to the faith.  he writes a great deal but we wonder whether, as the author of Hitler's Pope, he enjoys ready access to any reliable sources within the Vatican.

The way Cornwell spins it, the church hierarchy, and especially the Curia, is a vast moral cesspool.  It needs a radical, Augean stables sort of cleansing.  And how is this to be achieved?  Well, once a pope dies or leaves office, members of the Curia lose their jobs.  Most are generally appointed to them again by the new pope, in order to assure some bureaucratic continuity, but they need not be.  So, to put it simply:
Benedict realises the Curia must be reformed root and branch. He knows this is a mammoth task.
He is too old, and too implicated, to clean it up himself. He has resigned to make way for a younger, more dynamic successor, untainted by scandal – and a similarly recast Curia. 
Benedict was not prepared to wait for his own death to sweep out the gang who run the place. 
In one extraordinary gesture, by resigning, he gets rid of the lot of them.
As Cornwell tells it, then, Benedict, who wanted to be pope and has enjoyed being pope, is not resigning for personal reasons, but rather in an heroic act of self-sacrifice.  Leaving, he takes the corrupt and incompetent courtiers with him.

To an outsider, there appears to be at least one whopping logical hole in this argument.  The bureaucrats, including those of very high rank, serve in their offices at the pleasure of the pope.  He can, without too much trouble, fire whomever he chooses.  Traditionally, such firings are presented as promotions, but nobody is fooled when the secretary of a congregation is sent to watch over some Spanish nuns.  Bishops who annoy the pope can be "translated" from an actual diocese to, say, Partenia.  The pope is a monarch, and while that certainly does not free him from the politics of his court, it does give him immense power over the constitution of that court.

So it is at least counterintuitive  to propose that he is exercising his monarchical power by giving it up.

The second bit of dubious logic is that Benedict is resigning because he is "too implicated" in the church's problems.  The degree of his implication in the covering up the crimes of sexual predators has been hotly debated.  It appears that, like virtually all bishops of his age, he labored long under the old and horribly wrong moral, psychological and legal misconceptions which helped to these criminals escape punishment. In this, he has indeed been one part, neither the smallest nor the largest, in a vast if largely inadvertent criminal conspiracy.  But it also appears that, as a cardinal, he was one of the first to take John Paul II aside and impress upon him the gravity of the crimes, and call for genuine change.  (Frankly, we are saddened that so much animus in this matter is attached to Ratzinger, and so little to his predecessor in office.)

But our real point here is that Cornwell does not offer one single bit of evidence to substantiate his remarkably confident claims.  He can't, because to do so would require access to Benedict's own process of discernment, which appears to have been entirely private.  Cornwell's case is circumstantial, and goes basically like this:  there have been serious crimes; Benedict has a long acquaintance with these crimes; many of them are now in the public eye; Benedict is aware of many that are not; some people have called upon him to resign; he has resigned.

Cornwell evidently believes that the correlation of these facts proves causation.  But a far simpler and more intuitive string of facts goes like this:  Ratzinger wanted to retire as early as 70; he was elected pope at 76; he is now 86; he has retired.  

The fact that no other pope has renounced the office because of age, while certainly interesting, is hardly as decisive as Cornwell makes it sound.  "Retirement" is a fairly modern idea, after all.  During most of human, and therefore ecclesiastical, history, nobody did it; these days, anybody with the means expects to.

None of this means that Cornwell, or any of the journos making similar arguments, is mistaken.  We don't know, and we don't pretend to know, what is happening in Benedict's brain, or behind the frescoed walls of the Roman bureaucracy.  Certainly, these are difficult times for the church's leaders, and they will be well served by a thorough housecleaning, undertaken by an energetic pope, ideally one young enough or lucky enough to have prosecuted sexual predators rather than protecting them.  But it is hard to see how a resignation assures such a thing, and if the reporters have any proof that this was Benedict's plan, they have a duty to produce it.

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