Putting the Pope in His Place

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to renounce the Petrine ministry has understandably brought about a plethora of public reactions, not all of them favorable, and including not a few that resemble the familiar animadversions quite regularly made today against the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. Although in this case applied to Pope Benedict personally, and to his years in the chair of Peter, the reactions in question reflect the disfavor and even hostility in which the Church and the faith are widely held today, not only by secular liberals and the “cultured despisers” of Christianity, but even by some putative members of the pope’s own flock.

Some of these reactions exhibit not just a lack of sympathy or true understanding of what the Church and the faith are all about, but even a seemingly willful determination not to allow oneself to be influenced by what the actual facts of the case might be, meanwhile exhibiting a lofty dissatisfaction with the alleged failure of the pope (and the Church) to “get with the program” of today’s secular liberal world.

Thus, as soon as the pope’s announcement was made, a self-appointed Greek chorus of media and establishment voices immediately found much to criticize in Pope Benedict’s pontificate: the cerebral pontiff had failed to “connect” with people, it was said; he could never manage to emerge from out of the shadow of his superstar predecessor; the humble mien he typically presented contrasted unfavorably with the dynamism of Pope John Paul II (as if the latter was ever really admired for this by these same people when he was the pope!).

Then, it regrettably had to be recognized, Pope Benedict had tried but failed to revive the faith in Europe; this had been one of his more ambitious projects; but the results were undeniably meager (as if this revival was supposed to have been completed within the pope’s short eight-year term of office!). At the same time, the pope had unwisely given aid and comfort to some within the Church desiring to roll back the reforms of Vatican Council II; this became undeniable when he elected to placate the Catholic traditionalists and the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Notoriously, the pope even rehabilitated an anti-Semitic holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop.

Nor was this kind of thing a case of just favoring reactionary elements within the Church; in his ill-advised Regensburg Address, the pope ignited protests all over the Muslim world with his negative remarks on the Prophet Mohammed.

The list of his alleged mistakes and failures went on: his handling of the clerical sex-abuse crisis in the Church again supposedly left a very great deal to be desired; some of the stories focused on this particular subject, including the lead story of the Washington Post on February 11 announcing the pope’s resignation, even revived the false and long discredited allegations that, as archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger had allowed a German priest-abuser to be returned to ministry; and that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had been complicit in a Vatican failure to defrock a Wisconsin priest who many years earlier had abused young boys. Just about every media account that touched upon the subject of clerical sex abuse, in fact, either implied, or sometimes even bluntly stated, that Pope Benedict XVI had been knowingly involved in the Churchwide conspiracy to condone and cover up abuse. As late as February 23 in her “On Faith” column in the same Washington Post, Sally Quinn casually referred without citing examples or proof to the “crimes being protected and excused by the Vatican.”

Then, of course, there was the undoubted fact of Benedict’s once having belonged to the Hitler Youth organization (into which he was involuntarily drafted along with all the other boys his age in Hitler’s Germany, but in which he was never active). Yet the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release on February 12 documenting that no less than sixteen major media outlets, including such stalwarts as the Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Toronto Globe and Mail and the BBC and the Guardian in England, claiming that young Joseph Ratzinger had “joined” the Hitler Youth Organization.

There was also the matter of the pope’s apparent inability to put an end to the bureaucratic in-fighting in the Vatican, as brought out in the leaked documents pilfered by his butler. Similarly, he proved unable to deal with the financial irregularities at the Vatican bank or require compliance with international financial transparency standards. Credit card activity in the Vatican had to be blocked by the Italian authorities!

Among other accusations given new life as a result of the pope’s renunciation of the papal office were those implied by such sobriquets as “God’s Rottweiler” and Panzerkardinal frequently given to Cardinal Ratzinger during his years at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For was there not the recent “crackdown” on American nuns to show that the “old Church” had in no way been left behind? An AP story dated February 12 was among those reporting how this had “left a bitter taste among Catholics.”

And there certainly seemed to be a clear consensus among the liberal commentators that Pope Benedict had failed to reconcile progressive Catholics to his brand of Catholicism, meanwhile insisting on outdated Church teachings barring women from the priesthood, denying the “rights” of homosexuals, and continuing to condemn birth control and abortion.

The general picture, then, was one of an almost completely failed pontificate. Brilliant theologian as he was generally conceded to be, the pope had nevertheless simply not been able to measure up.

Among the most persistent themes, however, was how the Catholic Church now has to change. This theme was stressed in particular by soi-disant Catholics whose main interest in the Church seems to have become how she has to change. Reporting on TV network coverage of Pope Benedict’s renunciation of his office, for example, the Media Research Center judged that ABC’s self-identified Catholic Diane Sawyer “should go to confession” following her remarks on the Church’s need for “fundamental change,” given “the burden of what the Church has been through with the scandals.”

However, probably a low point was reached on CBS by David Letterman’s jibe about the pope’s “chronic neck problem”—caused, he thought, “by looking the other way so many times.” Letterman further opined that the Church was no doubt looking to replace Pope Benedict with “a guy who is good at transferring creepy priests.”

Distortions and Untruths Persist in Media Coverage
And so it went. What must strike a knowledgeable observer is how many of these characterizations, in spite of the confidence with which they have mostly been delivered, are either distortions or are simply not true! Even though the German pope has never attempted to present himself as a charismatic figure—quite the contrary!—he has nevertheless generally “connected” quite well with his audiences; some of his appearances have drawn larger crowds than those of this predecessor; this has certainly been true of the spontaneous outpourings of affection which greeted his announcement that he was stepping down. Benedict’s modest, even humble, demeanor has drawn people to him.

Similarly, his announced aim of reviving the faith (not only in Europe) has been launched quite impressively in the course of his relatively short pontificate, and will surely continue on in this Year of Faith.

Again, the allegation that he has somehow weakened the reforms of Vatican II can only have reference to what his critics think—usually mistakenly—the reforms of Vatican II actually were. As the pope pointed out in his off-the-cuff farewell address to the clergy of Rome on February 14, the Council was badly misinterpreted and abuses followed; many of its true reforms are only now being realized; he himself helped set the Church back on the road to true reform with his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia calling for a “hermeneutic of continuity” interpreting the Council in accordance with the authentic tradition of the Church.

Moreover, the pope’s various overtures to the Catholic traditionalists have surely been those of a concerned father; it is part of his job, after all, to try to reconcile those who have strayed, even though the SSPX’s adherents have not found it possible to respond in kind. He still needed to make the effort. (The media brouhaha that accompanied his lifting of the excommunication of SSPX Bishop Williamson—an honest mistake—was grossly exaggerated all out of proportion to any real significance that the whole affair had.)

As for the pope’s Regensburg Address, who can seriously argue that the application of reason to religion is not generally a good thing?

And with regard to the snide suggestions, and even open accusations, that this pope was somehow himself consciously and culpably involved in the Church’s clerical sex abuse scandal, and in the disgraceful record of cover-ups by members of the hierarchy, these claims are both false and themselves disgraceful. Pope Benedict XVI was never officially involved in this issue until quite late in the game; and the evidence is that as soon as he became involved, he was both prescient and highly responsible in the actions that he took. Who can forget his candid remarks about “filth” in the Church, or his very moving personal meetings with the victims of abuse?

It was none other than Pope Benedict XVI, after all, who finally removed Marcial Maciel Degollado from ministry as head of the Legionaries of Christ. Pope John Paul II, along with other “orthodox” Catholics, had refused to credit the charges brought against the evil double life being led by this cleric.

Like the insinuation that the young Joseph Ratzinger was ever an active member of Hitler Youth, any or all suggestions that he was ever in any way implicated in the clerical sexual abuse scandal—or soft on the issue—have to be treated as baseless.

Similarly, the idea that Pope Benedict XVI was remiss with respect to the financial troubles of the Vatican and the Vatican bank leaves out the fact that it was again this pope, precisely, who issued a motu proprio forbidding money laundering and who established in the Vatican a watchdog office, the Financial Intelligence Authority.

That some of the pope’s critics felt the necessity to hearken back to his days as a supposed Panzerkardinal riding roughshod over dissenters and heretics suggests a dearth of papal misdeeds that they could lodge against him. But Cardinal Ratzinger was actually quite lenient as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—considering the extent of dissent and disloyalty in the Church. He instituted disciplinary action in only a few of the more notorious cases such as that of Father Charles E. Curran, who was not just a dissenter, but a theoretician and fomenter of dissent. As for the current Vatican “crackdown” on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, this organization has been defying Church authority for decades, and the recent action was really quite mild by comparison with what the LCWR richly deserves.

And as for the pope’s insistence on the Catholic teachings regarding female (non)ordination, homosexual acts, or birth control and abortion, anybody who imagines that any of these teachings might possibly ever be changed simply does not understand the nature of the Catholic Church and her magisterium. These teachings are in no way merely “conservative” theological opinions that some future pope might conceivably change. They are definitive Church teachings that cannot be changed.

All in all, then, the attempt of the secular liberals, the media, and some dissident Catholics to put Pope Benedict XVI in his place has not proved to be very impressive—especially if truth is considered to be a necessary element in making any such judgment. This kind of critical account of the pope and his papacy, however, is not so much based on what he has actually said and done, but rather upon what his critics think he should have said and done—based on criteria of theirs often far removed from anything resembling authentic Catholicism. He has been weighed in the balance and found wanting by his critics precisely because he has so faithfully and authentically reflected and represented what the Church and the faith truly are; he has been faulted and vilified because he has been such a “good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:21).

Catholics might rightly be disappointed and even dismayed at how their Church and their faith—along with their Church’s supreme leader over the past eight years—could be so ignorantly and even maliciously characterized and misrepresented. It should not be forgotten, however, that “if the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).

Kenneth D. Whitehead


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

  • John O’Neill

    It should be noted that there are really two Catholic churches in the former USA. One of them is unabashedly merican; it teaches the wisdom and religious beliefs of one called Ted Kennedy an erstwhile leader of the mericans who taught that anything that has to do with restraining mericans from fornication, abortion, homosexuality, adultery, excessive drinking should be outlawed. The church of Ted is one that many merican catholics follow; they have many priests and ex priests , nuns and ex nuns, and catholic univeristies and ex catholic universities in their number. This church is the church that the merican media portrays as the Catholic Church but what annoys the merican media is that there is a Church that teaches what Jesus Christ taught and is guided by the century old magisterium. This church must be demonized non stop; hence the vicious attacks on Benedict XVI and those who uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church. The NYT would love to see the Catholic Church disappear of at least transform itself into the form of the Episcopal Church USA; a religious body that takes its marching orders from the powerful and wealthy merican politicians and media stars. It is very obvious that the traditional Roman Catholic Church is under the gun in the New American State and many of its members are already feeling the wrath of the new merican emperor, Nero II. Unfortunately many of the Catholic bishops in merica have sold heir souls to the American State and are trying hard to undo what the Church had accomplished many years ago. For a Catholic to pledge allegiance to this New American World State is a serious sin and failing of will. SERVA FIDEm.

  • Did any of those critics bother to follow Pope Benedict’s journey to American? There were millions who watched him on tv and also who came to see him in public…EWTN should broadcast those events again…the Pope left the security of his team again and again to reach out and touch his people whose hands were outstretched to touch him…it was truly Christ walking among his people…there is much evil in this world, an evil that distorts and exploits and tries to destroy all that is good … but it won’t succeed because of holy men and women and children…of people like our own Pope Benedict XVI. Knowing he will be devoting the rest of his life to praying for his beloved Church and her people is a comfort and a strength. Let us all hold Pope Benedict in our prayers …

  • hombre111

    A thoughtful article, if a bit defensive. Like any other human being, Pope Benedict had his strengths and weaknesses. His impact on the Church will be better understood from a later perspective. In the meanwhile, God be with you, Pope Benedict.

  • Note the typical NeoCatholic hostility here to those of the SSPX, even though those of the SSPX adhere to nothing but the traditional teachings of the Church. Cut through the ignorant propaganda seen in this article and elsewhere. Actually go to the SSPX website and explore it all for yourself.

    Also google for these excellent articles:

    Gnostic Twaddle by Christopher Ferrara


    The Justice of the term ‘neo-Catholic’ by Christopher Ferrara

    • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

      I can recon on Cristopher Ferrara that some of his articles and books are good, (e.g. “The Church and the Libertarian” http://distributistreview.com/mag/2010/08/an-interview-with-christopher-ferrara/) but he has proved once and again that he is actually not capable of take the communion with Rome seriously (http://www.secretstillhidden.com/book.html), particularly on Vatican II (which is pretty well-known by its fruits, just take a look at our two latest Popes and their teachings). About, SSPX: “Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” Benedict XVI http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/letters/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20090310_remissione-scomunica_en.html.

    • Nathan

      “SSPX adhere to nothing but the traditional teachings of the Church.”

      Would that include the traditional teachings about forming your own Church, disregarding infallible magisterial teaching, divine guarantee for the teachings of an Ecumenical Council, and papal supremacy and infallibility? I love the traditional liturgy, but face the facts, SSPX is nothing more than Luther with incense. SSPX is a schismatic, heretical group that has knowingly placed itself outside the Church. What’s that ‘traditional Church teaching’ on those who knowingly refuse to accept the Church’s authority? Ah yes, salus extra ecclesiam non est.

      BTW, if VII taught error, then so could have Nicaea, Trent, Florence, Vatican I, or any other council, then the Church is a sham and Christ is a false prophet and we are most to be pitied among men for we are still in our sins (cf.1 Corinthians 15).

      Peace, brother. God Bless. Find your way home.

  • rwreesor

    At the Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict was reading a Medieval Text. It was not his opinion about the Muslim Faith.

    • Nick_Palmer3

      Or, maybe it was a challenge to today’s Muslim faith. Scholar, philosopher and theologian that he is, Pope Benedict XVI is certainly not one for the casual use of words.

  • Charles Lewis

    I think any loyal Catholic would have to agree with Mr. Whitehead’s assessment. It’s really a simple matter of too many people analyzing the Church who do not really understand. The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus once wrote that to cover religion as a journalist it helps to be religious — otherwise the journalist will never really get. it. But I think there’s an additional problem. I think a lot of people really hate the Church. So it’s not a matter of Benedict but it’s anything through secular eyes can make the Church look bad. If Benedict was a liberal novelist and had been forced into Hitler Youth he’d be seen as a victim, not a Nazi.

    There is one thing I would like to add, though. Until the Church, my Church your Church, roots out all those who harm her we are going to continue to make easier for our enemies to attack. Today the Scottish Cardinal resigned over “inappropriate behavior;” a Cardinal from Honduras was accused in the past week of being a Jew-hater. And then we have the disgraced Cardinal Mahony insisting on taking part in the conclave. Why can’t he show the some humility and step aside for the sake of the Church? We can continue to say that the media picks on the Church and say the same thing happens in the Boy Scouts. But what we claim will always makes us a target. And to some extent we should be held to a higher standard.

    I love the Church deeply. And yes the media has been unfair with Benedict. We all know that. But it’s not the media’s fault that priests abused children or that bishops covered it up. Those who betrayed the Church internally have thrown the gas on fire that our enemies love to dance around

  • MinnCathlc

    Secular liberals want to “take out” the Catholic Church because it is the only institution(at least in the West) that has the ability to oppose the abortion on demand agenda. Thats the this is all about, pure and simple. Oh, and I think the Holy Father should wear as a badge of honor the title Gods Rotweiller”. The work he did at the CDF has done much to right the ship in the Church.

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  • joycelen

    God bless our beloved Papa Benedict. Do you expect anything different from the world? Catholics have to realize that friendship with the world is making yourself God’s enemy (St. James). Frankly, I don’t give a hoot what anyone in the world says. But I thank Mr. Whitehead for posting this.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Why is it all of these failures, I see as successes?

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  • Vivianne

    The Holy Father retires on Thursday, a day that will probably come for all of us, sooner or later! When we realize that our mortal bodies can no longer perform the way they once did, that we are unable to carry out our duties and serve our fellow man in a satisfactory manner, then we know it is time!
    When this wizened, much-loved little Pope retires, he will still have a mission to fulfill. He will be praying for us all, as we will for him. In a world greatly swayed by moral relativism, this Pope Emeritus will most likely be praying for families and children, whom he hopes will be raised holy, according to God’s plan. He will surely pray for couples to embrace God’s Will for them, and not their own.
    This Pope will certainly pray for a world torn by strife, fighting and war, that we all may know God’s peace. And we know that he will pray for the Church, against whom Christ
    promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail. His prayers will be powerful, for he remains God’s suffering servant, offering himself to the Lord, and accepting his new role according to God’s plan. We say good-bye to this sovereign Pontiff who has grown on our hearts! God bless you in your retirement, and may He give you many more years of fruitful service to Him!