Zero Hour at the Vatican: Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

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Pope Paul VI once compared his job to fatherhood -- something that was impossible to give up. "One does not step down from the cross," John Paul II reportedly said. The traditional view is that the body of the pope is not his alone. As with an absolute monarch, the office and the body are inseparable.

There were signs, but few interpreted them as such. During a visit to the Italian region of Abruzzo, why did Benedict lay the pallium, the papal woolen cloak, in front of the altar containing the relics of St. Celestine? Celestine was the only one of his predecessors who had voluntarily resigned, an act for which Dante had apparently banished him to hell. Did Benedict see the hermit pope as a kindred spirit?

But no one was paying attention, just as no one had paid attention to the pope in light of the commotion surrounding the church. Benedict spoke quietly and softly, and yet his words were chosen as carefully as if they were to be set in stone. For those who listened, his message was clear: It was a series of last words.

This was especially evident in the way he addressed German Catholics. On his visit to Germany, he warned of the need to take greater care of God's creation, one of several forays into ecology. In Freiburg, he advocated "de-secularization" and called upon Catholics not to adhere to structures. But there was no response to his efforts. The German episcopate also ignored the "Year of Faith" he proclaimed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

Tired and worn down, he completed his final tasks. He made his longtime confidant and loyal friend Georg Gänswein an archbishop, and he ensured that a conservative dogmatist, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Bavarian city of Regensburg, would assume leadership of the Vatican's doctrinal office.

At the very beginning of his term in office, Benedict spoke of the "yoke of Christ" that he was now assuming, and of the willingness to suffer. But even then, in his inaugural mass, he said ominously: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."

The Power of the Pope Emeritus

Now, it seems necessary to speculate whether it wasn't perhaps a few wolves in sheep's clothing that made life difficult for Benedict. He was all too familiar with the machinations of the members of the curia. But only Benedict himself can judge how greatly he despised this reality and how alien it must have been to him.

The groups are beginning to coalesce. Time is short until next month's papal conclave, but the fronts are hard-fought. Reformers (a few) face off against opponents of reform (more than a few), curial cardinals against those arriving in Rome from around the world, incorrigible Europeans against fresh non-Europeans, conservative Africans against open-minded South Americans. Four rounds of voting in 26 hours, as was the case in the Ratzinger election, are hardly likely to suffice this time.

"God has already decided," says Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, as if to console himself. Nevertheless, the princes of the church are positioning themselves to make that decision known to the general public, as well as to push it through against deaf and undiscerning colleagues.

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