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Vatican II and After

When Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected Supreme Pontiff on the twelfth ballot on October 28, 1958, he was less than a month short of his seventy-seventh birthday. Fat, kindly, and convivial, with an easy charm and a ready wit, he endeared himself to all those with whom he came in contact. No one had really loved Pope Pius; it was impossible not to love Pope John XXIII. Nonetheless, he was generally expected to be little more than a papa di passaggio—a caretaker pope. His pontificate did indeed last for less than five years, but there was little of the caretaker about it. On the contrary, it shook the world.

The first surprise was the name he chose: John. There had been twenty-two legitimate popes of that name, the most recent of whom had reigned at Avignon in the early fourteenth century; few had been men of much distinction, while John XII had been one of the most depraved pontiffs in all history.1 There had also been a previous John XXIII, an antipope deposed by the Council of Constance in 1415.2 Later the pope was to maintain that one of the reasons for his choice was to retrieve this evangelical name from dishonor; at the time of his election, however, he claimed to have chosen it because it was the name of his father, of the humble parish church near Bergamo where his family of thirteen had all been baptized, and of innumerable cathedrals throughout the world, including his own Lateran. Later, he characteristically produced yet another reason: that there had been more popes called John than any other name and that most of them had had remarkably short reigns.

The new pope was a scholar, author of a five-volume study of his hero, St. Charles Borromeo, the great sixteenth-century Archbishop of Milan and towering figure of the Counter-Reformation.3 This work had naturally brought him into contact with Monsignor Ratti, the Vatican librarian who later became Pope Pius XI. It was he who in 1925 launched Roncalli on a diplomatic career, during which he served first in Bulgaria, then in Turkey and Greece, where, during the German occupation, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the Jews. In December 1944 he was posted as nuncio to Paris, where he strongly supported the movement of worker-priests, and in 1953 he was named a cardinal and Patriarch of Venice, where he remained until his election.

Once pope, John gave a clear impression of a man in a hurry. On January 26, 1959, just three months after his election, L’Osservatore Romano reported that he was planning three important projects: a Diocesan Synod in Rome, an Ecumenical Council, and a revision of the canon law. Of the three, the second was clearly by far the most ambitious; to many people it seemed curious that it had not been given an announcement of its own. In fact, the pope was almost certainly testing the waters. His time in the Balkans had given him much experience of the Eastern churches, and he was anxious to find out as discreetly as he could how they would view his proposal. If their reaction was favorable, he might broaden the Council to include them; otherwise it would be restricted to the Church of Rome.

The old guard at the Vatican was appalled. Pope Pius XII had been an icy autocrat: he and he alone gave the orders; the bishops, even the cardinals, existed merely to carry them out. Now here, suddenly, was a proposal to bring together all the world’s bishops for free and uncontrolled discussions. Even the liberal Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the Archbishop of Milan and future Pope Paul VI, believed that the new pope was “stirring up a hornet’s nest.” But John was determined. The days of papal dictatorship were over. Henceforth the Church would be a collegiate body, with pope and bishops sharing responsibility between them. No longer could it turn its face away from the modern age. Aggiornamento was the new watchword, the bringing up to date of both its organization and its teaching. It was time, said the pope, to throw open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air.

There was inevitably a vast amount of preliminary work to be done before the projected Council could take place. The Diocesan Synod—surprisingly, the first in papal history—was held at the Lateran in January 1960, but the Second Vatican Council—it was in fact the Twenty-First Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church—did not open until nearly two years later, on October 11, 1962. The opening session in St. Peter’s was attended by 2,540 delegates, mostly bishops and superiors of religious orders, making it by far the largest gathering of any council in Church history. Well under half were European; 250 were African, with roughly the same number from Asia, while Latin America was represented by 600. Seventeen Orthodox and Protestant churches sent observers. In his inaugural address, the pope radiated optimism:

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom who are always foretelling disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.…

The Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues.… For this reason, the Church has not watched inertly the marvellous progress of the discoveries of human genius.…

The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only dawn. And already at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart. Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy. Let us contemplate the stars.

Less than a year later, on June 3, 1963, and after the shortest pontificate for two centuries, Pope John died of cancer. The Council had been his idea and very largely his creation, and although most of its final decisions were the work of others—above all his successor—it was from first to last imbued by his spirit. In five short years he had opened up the Church to the twentieth century. He had reached out to the other Christian churches and particularly to the Jews, for whom he always showed a special affection. As apostolic delegate in Turkey during the Second World War, he had saved the lives of several thousand Jewish children from Romania and Bulgaria, providing them with blank baptismal certificates, and within a year of his election he did what Pius XII had always refused to consider, deleting the phrase pro perfidis Judaeis (faithless Jews) from the Good Friday liturgy. One day when he was driving through Rome he happened to pass a synagogue just as the worshipers were leaving; he stopped his car to talk to them and bless them. No wonder that, on the night before his death, Rome’s chief rabbi went, with many of the Jewish faithful, to pray in St. Peter’s.

UNTIL HIS APPOINTMENT as Archbishop of Milan in 1954, Giovanni Battista Montini had spent virtually his whole working life in the papal Secretariat. The son of a prosperous lawyer and parliamentary deputy, already in 1937, at the age of forty, he had been appointed assistant to Cardinal Pacelli, then secretary of state, at whose side he was to remain for the next seventeen years. In 1953 he had declined a cardinal’s hat, knowing that this would remove him from his unique position of power; but it seems likely that soon after this his influence began to decline anyway. As a relative liberal, he almost certainly antagonized the reactionary old guard, including Pius himself, who began to want him out of the way; and he knew perfectly well that by his appointment to Milan he was being kicked upstairs. It was a further mark of disfavor that, despite strong and repeated representations from the Milanese themselves, membership in the Sacred College continued to be withheld from him; without a red hat he was obviously not qualified to be elected, as many would otherwise have expected, as the next pope.

It is a characteristic of dictators—and Pius XII was a dictator if anyone was—to give little or no thought to their successors. Perhaps it was an aspect of Pius’s autocratic instincts—“Après moi le déluge,” he is said to have murmured—that he seems to have mistrusted his cardinals and taken curiously little interest in them. In nineteen years he held just two consistories, and when he died the Sacred College, whose full complement had been set by Sixtus V at seventy, had only fifty-one members, half of whom were well over eighty years old. All this had been immediately rectified by Pope John on his accession. At his first consistory, when Archbishop Montini at last received his red hat, he abolished Pope Sixtus’s maximum, and by 1962 the College numbered no fewer than eighty-seven.

Of these cardinals, eighty assembled on the evening of June 19 for the conclave. Montini was the favorite but was nevertheless elected only on the fifth ballot, taking the name of Paul VI; he wanted, he said, to reach out to the modern Gentiles. Few pontiffs have accepted the triple crown with greater or more genuine reluctance. Now sixty-five, he knew—no one better—what it meant to be pope: not just the responsibility but the aching personal loneliness. He knew, too, that he had just a hundred days before the second session of the Council began. The first, in which he had played a significant part, had not been an unqualified success: there had been several angry clashes of ideas and several more of personalities. But that had been inevitable, for never in papal history had there been such outspokenness, such freedom of expression; in the words of Thomas Roberts, formerly Archbishop of Bombay, the children of God had been able to slide down the banisters in the house of the Lord.

It was only with the second session that the Council got into its stride, proving itself to be the most revolutionary Christian phenomenon since the Reformation. It contradicted Pius XII’s pronouncements on almost every main issue: ecumenism, liturgical reform, communism, freedom of religion, and above all Judaism. The key document was Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Church. Pius would have hated it, above all the section which took care not to identify the Roman Catholic Church with the Church of Christ. The latter, it maintained, simply “subsisted” within it, “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible structure.” This meant effectively that it could coexist equally with other churches: Catholicism no longer claimed the monopoly on divine truth. Elsewhere, the decree undermined the whole concept of papal autocracy by emphasizing the importance of the bishops and indeed of the laity. The Church is described as a pilgrim Church, the faithful as a pilgrim people.

Of the several other decrees approved by the Council, the Decree on the Liturgy transformed Roman Catholic worship, establishing the principle of greater participation in the Mass by the laity, introducing the vernacular in place of Latin, and requiring that the celebrant face the congregation rather than the altar. The Decree on Ecumenism made the quest for religious unity central to the Church’s work. The Decree on Religious Liberty, primarily an American initiative, declared that freedom of worship was a fundamental element of human dignity. The Decree on Other Religions (Nostra Aetate), vehemently opposed by the still anti-Semitic Curia, was of particular importance in defining the Church’s attitude to the Jews:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; yet what occurred in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism, directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone.

The Council continued for just over three years, being finally closed by Pope Paul on December 8, 1965. From the first preparations until the end, its success had been very largely due to him. The opposition of the old guard had continued throughout, and it is unlikely that Pope John, even had he lived, could have forced most of the measures through. Paul, by contrast, who had spent his whole working life in the Vatican bureaucracy, possessed the knowledge and experience to steer the Council with a firm and confident hand. He dealt with the old guard by imposing on all bishops—an exception was made only for the pope in his capacity of Bishop of Rome—compulsory retirement at the age of seventy-five. Cardinals would be obliged to retire from the Curia at eighty, after which they would no longer be permitted to participate in papal conclaves, the only privilege to which their rank entitled them. On the other hand, the size of the Sacred College was drastically increased, with the appointment of many new cardinals from the Third World; henceforth the Italians would never again enjoy an absolute majority.

The Church had been transformed to the point of unrecognizability. For many Catholics, it had at last moved with the times. For many others, it had destroyed itself. Congregations, even in old strongholds such as Spain and Sicily, fell away. Priests tore off their collars; several orders of nuns put away their old habits in favor of uniforms inescapably reminiscent of those worn by airline hostesses. Particularly among the older generation, the disappearance of the familiar and beloved Latin proved hard to accept; to some it was even heartbreaking. Apart from its intrinsic beauty, Latin had served as a lingua franca; in every country of the world, the Mass had been identical and thus immediately familiar. Now, just at the moment when civil aviation was opening up and people were traveling more than ever before, the faithful were all too often obliged to hear it in languages of which they understood not a word.

It was Paul’s task to hold all these conflicting elements together. This he managed, on the whole, successfully—though he was unable to prevent the breakaway traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre from founding his Society of St. Pius X, which firmly upheld the old order together with the full Tridentine Mass. He drove the Council forward and ensured that there was no backsliding when it was over; but in other respects he remained staunchly conservative. On the question of priestly celibacy he refused to budge, while the stand he took on birth control did immeasurable damage to his reputation.

Perhaps unwisely, he had considered this subject too hot a potato for the Council; instead he had entrusted it to a special commission of theologians, doctors, scientists, and—somewhat surprisingly—married couples. This commission recommended that the Church’s traditional teaching should be modified to allow artificial contraception, at least in certain circumstances, and it was generally expected that the pope would accept the recommendation, which had already been endorsed by the majority of a panel of bishops. Alas, he did nothing of the sort: his consequent encyclical, Humanae Vitae, of 1968 simply reconfirmed the old Vatican line. It caused much disappointment and, in many cases, disgust. Particularly in pullulating South America, hundreds of priests resigned; hundreds more continued to encourage contraception among their flock, just as they always had.

Paul should perhaps have visited South America himself; he certainly could have, for he was the first pope to travel on a grand scale—seeing it, indeed, as part of his pastoral duty. In 1963 he addressed the United Nations in New York, in 1964 the International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay. That year also saw him in Jerusalem, where he and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras took what seemed to be the first step in the ending of the Great Schism which had split the Eastern and Western churches from 1054.4 In 1967 he was the first pope since the Ottoman Conquest to visit Istanbul, where he made the embarrassing mistake of falling on his knees on entering St. Sophia, giving the hard-line Islamists the opportunity to accuse him of attempting to convert the building back into a Christian church.5 In 1969, for the World Council of Churches—where his presence would have been unthinkable before Vatican II—he was in, of all places, Geneva; in that same year he went to Uganda, thus becoming the first pontiff ever to set foot on the African continent; and in 1970 he visited the Philippines—where he narrowly escaped assassination—and Australia.

By this time, however, he was giving several of his closest associates cause for concern. His responsibilities were becoming too much for him; he was a deeply unhappy man. The loneliness of his position, his increasing unpopularity, especially after Humanae Vitae, the increasing tensions within the Church as the full consequences of Vatican II slowly became apparent, the increase in international terrorism, and the Italian Red Brigades all took their toll and increased his depression. In 1974 there were even rumors of his possible resignation, and in 1978 the kidnapping and subsequent murder of his close friend the Christian Democratic politician Aldo Moro, at whose funeral he presided, was a blow from which he never properly recovered. He died that same year—of acute cystitis, culminating in a massive heart attack—in his summer palace of Castel Gandolfo. It was on the evening of Sunday, August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

CARDINAL ALBINO LUCIANI was elected pope on the fourth ballot, on the first and last day of the conclave of August 26, 1978. He was of a poor, working-class background from near Belluno, his father passing much of his working life as a seasonal worker—bricklayer and electrician—in Switzerland. Luciani had been Bishop of Vittorio Veneto and subsequently, for nine years, Patriarch of Venice; he was, however, little known outside Italy, and it was a matter of considerable surprise that the 111 voting cardinals—of whom only 27 were Italian—should have chosen him so quickly. The English Cardinal Basil Hume had an explanation: “Seldom have I had such an experience of the presence of God.… I am not one for whom the dictates of the Holy Spirit are self-evident. I’m slightly hard-boiled on that.… But for me he was God’s candidate.”

Paul VI had, as we have seen, accepted the Papacy only with extreme reluctance; his successor felt much the same. After the penultimate ballot, when he was well in the lead and within seven votes of the Papacy, he was heard to murmur, “No, please no.” Many of his closest associates thought he might well refuse, but slowly and sadly he nodded his head. He took the name of John Paul I, the first double-barreled name in papal history. In his first speech to the people of Rome he explained why:

Pope John had wanted to consecrate me with his own hands here in the Basilica of St. Peter. Then, though unworthy, I succeeded him in the cathedral of St. Mark—in that Venice that is still filled with the spirit of Pope John.… On the other hand, Pope Paul not only made me a cardinal, but some months before that, in St. Mark’s Square, he made me blush in front of 20,000 people, because he took off his stole and placed it on my shoulders. Never was my face so red.… And so I took the name “John Paul.”

Be sure of this. I do not have the wisdom of heart of Pope John. I do not have the preparation and culture of Pope Paul. But I now stand in their place. I will seek to serve the Church and hope that you will help me with your prayers.

This informal, familiar tone set the seal on John Paul’s papacy. No pope had ever been more approachable; no pope had ever had such a warm and captivating smile—a smile that reached out to everyone he met. Pomposity he detested. Some was of course inseparable from his position, but he reduced it to a minimum. He was, for example, the first pope to refuse a coronation; there were no more triple crowns, no more gestatorial chairs in which he would be carried shoulder-high through the crowds, no more swaying ostrich feathers, no more of the royal “We.” He longed to take the Church back to its origins, to the humility and simplicity, the honesty and poverty of Jesus Christ himself.

But how was it to be done? First of all, there was the Curia to contend with. He had no enemies in it; indeed, at the time of his election he had no enemies at all. But his refusal to be crowned with all the usual trappings had horrified the traditionalists, and his decision that the extra month’s salary normally paid on the election of a new pope should be cut by half had not increased his popularity. He soon found, too, that the Vatican was a hotbed of petty hatreds, rivalries, and jealousies. “I hear nothing but malice, directed against everything and everyone,” he complained. “Also, I have noticed two things that appear to be in very short supply: honesty and a good cup of coffee.”

In such an atmosphere it was inevitable that he would be misinterpreted and misrepresented. L’Osservatore Romano, for example, in a special edition published within hours of his election, reported that he was among the first of the bishops to circulate the encyclical Humanae Vitae “and to insist that its teaching was beyond question.” This was completely untrue. It was well known that in 1968, as Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, he had submitted a confidential report to his predecessor as Patriarch of Venice, recommending that the recently developed contraceptive pill should be permitted by the Church, and that this report, having been approved by his fellow bishops, was submitted to Paul VI. As we know, Paul rejected it, but John Paul had not changed his opinion. In 1978 he had been invited to speak at an International Congress in Milan to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Humanae Vitae but had refused to go. Within days of his election he agreed to receive the American Congressman James Scheuer, who headed the House Select Committee on Population. “To my mind,” he remarked to the secretary of state, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot, “we cannot leave the situation as it currently stands.”

Had he lived his full term, this quiet, gentle, smiling man might well have achieved a revolution in the Church—a revolution even more dramatic and profound than that created by Pope John’s Second Vatican Council. But he did not live. Shortly before 5:30 A.M. on Friday, September 29, 1978, he was found dead in his bed. He had been pope for just thirty-three days, the shortest reign since that of Leo XI in 1605.

Was John Paul I murdered? Certainly, there were reasons to believe so. For a man of sixty-five he was in excellent health; there was no postmortem or autopsy; the Curia obviously panicked and was caught out in any number of small lies as to the manner of his death and the finding of his body; and if, as was widely believed, he was on the point of exposing a major financial scandal in which the Vatican Bank and its director, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, were deeply implicated, there were at least three international criminals—one of whom, Roberto Calvi of the Banco Ambrosiano, was later found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London—who would have gone to any lengths to prevent him from doing so. The Vatican, moreover, is an easy place for murder. It is an independent state with no police force of its own; the Italian police can enter only if invited—which they were not.

The arguments for and against the conspiracy theory are long and complicated. To set them out here would mean devoting twenty or thirty pages to a pope who reigned for only a month and would hopelessly unbalance this already overlong book. Those who would like to study them—and they are well worth studying—should read two books: In God’s Name by David Yallop (in favor of the theory) and A Thief in the Night by John Cornwell (against it). They can then decide for themselves.6

IT WAS REMARKABLE that the first non-Italian pope to be elected since Hadrian VI in 1522 should have been elected on only the second day of voting, gaining 103 of the 109 votes cast; but Karol Wojtyła was a remarkable man. Still only fifty-eight, he was a published poet and playwright, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, and fluent in six—some say ten—languages. He studied at the University of Cracow, but after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the university had been closed down. He then took several laborer’s jobs, including one in a quarry, and is said to have had a relationship with a local girl before deciding on the priesthood at the comparatively late age of twenty-two. Thereafter he rose fast. After only three years as a parish priest he returned to the university to study philosophy and to lecture on social ethics. He was nominated bishop at the early age of thirty-eight, and five years later Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Cracow.

Two days after his election as John Paul II, in his first important speech as pope, he emphasized his international role as head of the universal Church. “From now on,” he said, “the particular nature of our country of origin is of little importance.” It was, of course, nothing of the kind. Poland, where he had lived for the first fifty-eight years of his life, remained his spiritual home. It colored all his policies, all his decisions, all his public pronouncements. During his pontificate he went back there on no fewer than nine occasions, far more than to any other country. He remembered all too clearly the Warsaw Rising and the Holocaust. On “Black Sunday,” August 6, 1944, the Gestapo had rounded up 8,000 young Polish men in Cracow; Wojtyła had escaped by hiding in a basement while the Germans searched upstairs. After the war he endured nearly half a century of communism, and from 1980, when the Communist monolith began to crack, he gave every encouragement to the Polish Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Wałęsa, to whom he may well have secretly channeled funds through Archbishop Marcinkus and the Vatican Bank. As Mikhail Gorbachev once remarked, “The collapse of the iron curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.”

In the late afternoon of May 13, 1981, while the pope was being driven around St. Peter’s Square in his Popemobile during a general audience, a Turkish gunman named Ali Agca fired three shots at him at almost point-blank range. He was rushed to the Gemelli Hospital. Agca was immediately arrested, later telling the examining magistrate that he was a “nationalist atheist” who hated both the Catholic Church and American and Russian imperialism. He added that he had hoped to kill the pope during his visit to Turkey in November 1979 but that his intended victim had then been too well protected. In Rome he was an open target. Agca’s paymasters, if any, were never revealed, though the Bulgarian government came under heavy suspicion. On his recovery John Paul announced that he had forgiven his would-be assassin; in 1983 he visited him in prison, and something approaching friendship developed between them. In later years the pope also received Agca’s mother and brother in audience.

After five hours of surgery and the loss of three-quarters of his blood, his convalescence was long: it was not till October that he was completely restored to health. But by 1982, having by now become something of a media superstar, he was able to resume his harrowing travel schedule, making four or five major journeys a year around the world. By the end of his twenty-six-year pontificate he had chalked up a total of 104 foreign journeys to 129 countries. In May–June 1982—despite the Falklands War, which very nearly caused a cancellation—he went on a six-day visit to Britain, the first ever by a reigning pope, during which he preached in Canterbury Cathedral. In March 2000 he was in Israel—what, one wonders, would Pius XII have thought?7 In 2001, in Damascus, he became the first pope ever to pray in an Islamic mosque. His one regret was that he never managed to get to Russia.

In other respects, however, John Paul II can now be seen to have been closer in thought to Pius XII than he was to John XXIII. And perhaps it was not entirely surprising. For virtually his entire adult life until he came to Rome, the Polish Church had had its back to the wall, struggling first against the Germans, then against the Russians for its very survival. Wojtyła had fought for that church as it was, not as it might be, and on becoming pope at fifty-eight he was too old to change. His fourteen encyclicals reveal him if anything as a reactionary, doggedly reasserting the old Catholic teachings on euthanasia, abortion, the ordination of women, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. Those who had looked to his predecessor for a major change of policy on birth control—permitting the use of condoms if only to prevent the spread of HIV—knew all too well that from John Paul II they could expect nothing of the kind. Where he surprised everybody was in his berserk canonizations of everyone in sight: quite apart from the 1,340 men and women whom he beatified, the first step to sainthood, he canonized no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries.

Toward the end of his pontificate John Paul was a firm opponent of the Iraq War. In his 2003 State of the World Address he made his views abundantly clear: “No to war!” he declared. “War is not always inevitable, but it is always a defeat for humanity.” Later he is quoted as pointing out that “wars do not in general resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore ultimately prove futile.” How right he was; but by this time he was failing fast. In 1991 there had appeared the first signs of Parkinson’s disease—though the Vatican characteristically kept it secret for twelve years, admitting it only in 2003, by which time his speech was noticeably slurred and he was confined to a wheelchair. He died on the evening of Saturday, April 2, 2005, forty-six days short of his eighty-fifth birthday. The Requiem Mass which was said for him six days later was attended by well over four million people, almost certainly the largest single Christian pilgrimage in history.

THE FUNERAL SERVICE for John Paul II was conducted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at that time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office and before that as the Holy Inquisition. There his principal duty was to ensure that those teaching in Catholic institutions kept within the strict doctrines laid down by Rome. Despite his reputation as “God’s rottweiler,” Ratzinger was in fact of a mild and gentle disposition and was generally considered the favorite for the succession; and although favorites are often passed over by the conclaves, no one was surprised when, on the fifth ballot, he was duly elected, the seventh German pope in history but the first since the eleventh century.

For the highly intelligent theologian that he undoubtedly is, Benedict has not, at the time of writing, proved himself as surefooted as one might have hoped. In little more than two years he managed seriously to offend three important religious groups: first the Muslims, then the Jews, and finally the Protestant churches. The first faux pas occurred in a lecture which he gave less than eighteen months after his accession at his old University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006. “Show me,” he said,

just what Mohammed introduced that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.

It subsequently appeared that the pope had merely been quoting, rather than endorsing, the alleged words of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus in 1391, but he unfortunately failed to make that clear at the time. There were widespread protests all over the Muslim world, and on the West Bank two Christian churches were firebombed. Later the pope made a handsome apology, which he repeated at a specially convened reception for twenty high-ranking Muslim diplomats at Castel Gandolfo. Two months later he paid an official visit to Turkey. There were hostile demonstrations at Istanbul airport, and special security measures had to be taken for his protection, but he prayed in the Blue Mosque, and the visit was accounted a fair success.

Next, he needlessly antagonized the Protestants. A papal declaration issued on July 11, 2007, stated:

It is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of “Church” could possibly be attributed to [Protestant communities], given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church.

This time there was a howl of protest. The president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy described the declaration as “a huge step backwards,” while his French equivalent gave a sinister warning of “external repercussions”—though no one was quite sure what he meant.

Shortly afterward he turned his attention to the Jews, many of whom already felt a sense of outrage at the Church’s apparent insistence on canonizing Pope Pius XII. Although Benedict has given no grounds for accusations of personal anti-Semitism, his decision on July 7, 2007, to permit once again the Tridentine Mass, which includes a prayer that asks God to lift the veil so that the Jews “may be delivered from their darkness,” was not well received in Jewish circles. Still less popular was the subsequent lifting of excommunication on the four breakaway bishops from Archbishop Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, among whom was the English Bishop Richard Williamson, notorious for his continued denial of the Holocaust.8

These were all positive actions, which could—and should—have been avoided. The far greater storm in which Benedict soon found himself engulfed was not of his own making. The storm first broke in Ireland, with horrific revelations of widespread child abuse, and frequently of gratuitous physical violence, in Catholic schools and orphanages. Almost as reprehensible was the instinctive cover-up by the Church, which had tended to transfer those responsible to another parish rather than risk unpleasant publicity by defrocking them on the spot. The pope could have earned a reputation for swift, decisive action by instantly removing the Irish primate, Cardinal Seán Brady, after he admitted having been involved in this cover-up in the 1970s, but at the time of writing Brady remains in his position. Meanwhile, the scandal over clerical pedophilia has spread across Europe and the United States. True, in March 2010 the pope wrote a letter addressed to the Catholics of Ireland, apologizing for the “sinful and criminal” abuses that had been going on for several decades. Here again, however, one wonders why he limited his apology to Ireland—with the result that Catholics in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and above all Germany inevitably feel that what happens in their countries is of less concern to him. His reactions have been too little, too late, and the storm shows no sign of abating.

It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their Church bring itself into the modern age. With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day—on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed. Sometimes, indeed, the Church seems to take a step backward: as recently as July 15, 2010, it elevated the ordination of women to the status of “grave delict,” making it one of the most serious crimes in canon law and effectively putting it on the same level as child abuse.9

And so, what with one thing and another, the present pontificate has gotten off to a distinctly shaky start. Even during Benedict’s otherwise successful visit to Britain in September 2010, the Anglican hierarchy was hard-pressed to hide its indignation at his recent offer to welcome into the Catholic priesthood those married Protestant bishops and priests who were leaving their own church in protest against the ordination of women bishops. But the pontificate is still unfinished, and we can as yet draw no final conclusions. All that can be said is that Pope Benedict will prove better than many of his predecessors, worse than others, and that after nearly two thousand years, and despite the atmosphere of agnosticism that prevails in much of the world today, the Roman Catholic Church—with its two billion members, representing as it does half of all Christians and about one-sixth of the global population—is, despite everything, flourishing as perhaps it has never flourished before. If he could see it now, St. Peter would—I think—be proud indeed.

1. See chapter 7.

2. See chapter 16, and Gibbon’s comment: “The most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.”

3. See chapter 20.

4. See chapter 8.

5. It had served as a mosque throughout the Ottoman period but had been declared a secular museum by Kemal Atatürk in 1935.

6. Having for many years been convinced that the pope was indeed murdered, I have now reread the evidence on both sides and have changed my mind. The murderer, if there was one, must somehow have gained admittance to the papal apartments in the middle of the night. Unless one or both of the papal secretaries (or one or more of the small team of nuns who did the cooking and cleaning) were implicated in the plot, which I find hard to believe, I do not see how he managed to do so.

7. He would at least have been relieved that, even at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, John Paul made no apologies for past silences.

8. A visit to Israel in May 2009, during which he naturally followed John Paul II’s example with a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial, did much to mend the fences.

9. The Times of London, June 16, 2010. It is only fair to add that in subsequent issues, the charge was indignantly rebutted by Catholic apologists.

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