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The essential quality the next Pope must have

2013 February 28

At 8pm tonight Benedict XVI will climb aboard a helicopter to leave the Vatican for the last time as pope. He leaves behind him a paradoxical legacy. Theologically conservative and institutionally authoritarian he nonetheless demonstrated a pastoral sensitivity and a willingness to dialogue with a world which is increasingly secular, at least in Europe and the United States. Ultimately history may remember him as the first pope in modern times to resign, thus redefining the papacy as a job, rather than a vocation, with particular tasks and targets. He has set a benchmark and future popes who find they are not up to the job will come under pressure to retire. His final act may turn out to be his most modernising.

Benedict’s papacy has been one that has been continually marred by scandals, originating in clerical sex abuse but culminating in systematic institutional cover-ups. They were designed to protect the Church’s reputation, but in the end undermined its moral authority. The departing Pope has been much firmer in dealing with paedophile priests and other clerical abusers than is generally supposed. But he has done it behind closed doors, thereby reinforcing the impression that the Church continues to care more about institutional self-preservation than it does about promulgating the values of the gospel. If he was a new broom he swept in the old ways.

In his fight against the entrenched resistance of the Vatican bureaucracy Benedict XVI has retired defeated. It became clear he had been out-manoeuvred five years ago when he was persuaded by Rome’s vested interests to move the reforming Archbishop Viganò, who was clamping down on internal waste and corrupt practices, and pack him off to be papal ambassador in the United States. Viganò protested, but in vain. More recently the Vatileaks scandal was spun by the Church’s spin doctors as a “what the butler leaked” romp but it emerged in court that the Pope’s butler passed the secret papal papers to a journalist because he was worried at the extent to which underlings were pulling the wool over the pontiff’s eyes.

Many believe Benedict decided on his shock resignation the day three cardinals presented him with their report into the Vatileaks affair. It is said to reveal extensive Vatican intrigue and infighting, with one of the factions reportedly being a gay mafia of high-ranking officials involved in sex romps in a sauna. Certainly the Pope has locked the dossier in his safe with the instruction that it is for the eyes of the next pontiff only.

The new pope will not be the liberal many progressive Catholics desire. The 115 cardinals who will vote for the new man are a gerontocracy. They have earned their place by dint of long service to an institution whose core values are hierarchy and orthodoxy. They will not vote for anyone likely to overturn church teaching on the interwoven doctrines of contraception, abortion and sexuality. A church that does not yet even treat women as equals is hardly likely to change its mind about marriage between two men.

Yet there will be key differences between the available candidates. Some will offer more open attitudes to other Christians, Muslims and Jews. A pope from Africa or Asia might reinforce the Church’s commitment in the fight against global poverty. Some candidates will reinforce Rome’s siege mentality against secular values; others will open a greater conversation. There will be those who want a smaller purer church and others who want to find a more inclusive way of ending the polarisation of traditionalists and progressives within the Catholic laity.

What is essential, however, is that whoever is chosen is committed to reforming the dysfunctional Vatican civil service and creating greater transparency in its working. That will require not merely commitment but a Pope with a track record for being able to deliver in diocesan administration. Without effective change inside Rome’s internal machinery the next Pope, whatever his intentions, will be stymied by its self-serving bureaucracy.

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