After Ratzinger, Enough With the Old European Popes!

Lifting the veil: Benedict was a mystery whose tenure brought to mind The Wizard of Oz. Maria G. Picciarella/ROPI-REA/Redux

My wife exclaimed, when she heard of the pope's surprise announcement to retire: "It's bad enough having one old man thinking he's infallible—now there'll be two of them!" Our conversation went on to imagine the election of yet another octogenarian, who might well in turn resign before the demise of Benedict. Pretty soon, the Vatican could fill up with retired infallible old men, most of them Italian, all nodding in front of the daytime television in the geriatric wing, and all—all—infallible.

My guess is that this time, they won't go for yet another ancient European, and they will plump for a cardinal either from Africa or South America. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana would be good. Another possibility is Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria—an arch-conservative who makes Ratzinger seem like a wishy-washy Anglican. (Which in many ways he is!)

But my money is on Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. At 70, he is the ideal age—with 10 years, at least, before he joins the other infallibles in the dayroom. Additionally, he has the great advantage of being, at present, in charge of the Vatican's relationship with the Eastern churches—and it is surely the moment in history to reunite Rome with the Orthodox. And he is also a voice of South America—and that must be heard. Europe and North America have grown deaf to the faith, and the church needs someone from elsewhere to nourish the flame once more.

Whatever happens, for a pope who was elected on the traditionalist ticket, it was a curious thing to retire. Popes just don't retire. And then he did. Ever since his moment of truth in 1968, when the rioting students of Tübingen converted the liberal-minded Joseph Ratzinger into the Enemy of the Enlightenment and Defender of Catholic Reaction, this has been a man—surely—who wanted to revert to the way things were in the good old days, back in ... er ... when exactly?

That has always been the problem for "traditionalists" or "conservatives" in any sphere of life—church, politics, family life. How far do you want to go back? At what point, exactly, did things begin to go wrong?

Appointed as John Paul II's righthand man, Ratzinger was the Nasty Cop, engaged to wage war on the liberals. But in point of fact, he was always a much subtler figure than his enemies—or, more dangerously—his fans believed. Almost the first thing he said to the English Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was: "When are we going to make Newman a saint?"

John Henry Newman, the 19th-century convert from Anglicanism, in 1845 wrote a world-changing book—literally—called The Development of Christian Doctrine. In it, he posited that nothing stays the same; everything is in a state of flux and development. He popularized the Hegelian view of the world for English speakers, and thereby prepared the world for Darwin and modern political democracy. But it took a while for the church—in the Second Vatican Council—to catch up. Ratzinger, behind the old-fashioned vestments, and the occasional sharp message to American or German liberal theologians, has always in fact been a Newman Catholic, aware that the church, for all its historic roots in the world of late classical antiquity, is ever changing, ever new.

Dante Alighieri, not a poet who minced his words about popes, had no hesitation in sending to hell the only pope who had resigned in his lifetime. True, he did not put the resigning pope in the very pits of hell with those who sell political office, or who betray their country or their friends. But there he is, cowering on the borders of hell at the very beginning of the Inferno. "And then I saw—and knew beyond all doubt—the shadow of the one who made, from cowardice, the great refusal"—che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

They are tough words, especially if we take them to refer to a man whom the Catholic Church venerates not merely as a holy pope but as a saint: Saint Celestine V.

Friends, Germans, countrymen. The pope visits Freiburg. Pool photo by Joerg Eberl

No one would compare Benedict XVI, a highly intelligent and articulate man, with the poor hermit peasant-friar who was chosen as a compromise candidate for the papacy in 1293. Unable to make up their minds between rival French and Italian rascals, the College of Cardinals—only 12 men in those days, dithered for 27 months! Eventually, someone had the idea of appointing a saint to the Holy See. Poor, illiterate Padre Pietro was an 85-year-old hermit living in a little grotto on a mountainside in the region of Naples. He accepted the papal office, but was terrified by it, and after only a few months begged to be allowed back to his cell. The cardinals accepted his choice. He was canonized relatively quickly, in 1313, less than 20 years after his death. Modern scientists examining his skull found the unmistakable traces of a nail having been driven into the poor old man's head, so he was evidently murdered, and in all likelihood, it was his suave lawyer-successor, Boniface VIII—Dante's bête noire—who arranged the murder.

It was an unedifying episode in medieval history, and we would probably not know much about it if Boniface VIII had not, in addition to murdering his predecessor, sent Dante into exile from his native Florence. Boniface thereby made himself into one of the villains of world literature, and all of Dante's hatred was poured out on the pope's head.

There is matter for meditation here. Celestine V was a holy and good man, but a very bad pope. Boniface, if only half the things his enemies said about him were true, was far from a good man. But he was a brilliant pope who rescued the Western church (for a time) from some of the worst crises in its history: the breakup of Christendom itself being the worst, with the Eastern Orthodox churches going it alone, while the Western church was riven with schism. Add to that the European wars and the ever-present threat of Islam in Spain and in Eastern Europe.

Benedict XVI is neither a holy hermit nor a criminal. But he is a paradox. Before he became pope, he was the white hope of the arch-conservatives in the church—"God's Rottweiler"—the man who was going to send the liberals howling to their lairs while the universal church once again reasserted the old ways.

And in some ways, it looked very much as if this was what Benedict set out to do when he was first elected. He wore a variety of extremely old-fashioned vestments—the little red cap trimmed with white fur bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of Father Christmas—and those scarlet loafers made by Prada. He brought in from the cold the ultraright conservatives who followed Archbishop Lefebvre. (But he failed to do a name check with all of them, and found himself acknowledging as a bishop an English oddball called Richard Williamson, who was a Holocaust denier.) He restored the old Tridentine Mass, for those who wished to use it—a semi-cynical move, since how many priests are left who know how to perform the old rite?

But also, from the very first, he revealed a surprising intellectual flexibility. The very first address he made to the cardinals, just after his election, was a remarkable piece of prose for anyone to have written—but even more for a German Catholic. For a German pope, it was actually astounding, for he acknowledged that Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, had in effect been right, and that Christians are saved not by the mere performance of religious observances but by faith in Christ. His first encyclical, "God Is Love" ("Deus Caritas Est"), followed up the theme with an exaltation of love in all its human forms. It contained none of the usual carping papal denunciations of gays or divorced people. It was a simple celebration of love—as simple as Dumbledore's when he tells Harry Potter that he had been saved by "love, Harry, love."

In the company of men: Priests in Glasgow off to hear the pope. Andrew Testa/The New York Times

Oh, yes. Harry Potter. That too. When a sour-faced old Austrian Catholic schoolmarm went to the boring trouble to write a book denouncing Harry Potter as encouraging magic and the black arts, Benedict carelessly endorsed her thesis. But when it was pointed out to him that, as a matter of fact, J.K. Rowling was on the side of the angels, he was gracious enough to withdraw his denunciation.

In other words, Joseph the Unbudgeable, Ratzinger the Ironclad Bismarck of Church Politics, transmogrified into a gentle, unpredictable, accident-prone old pope, more absent-minded professor than Grand Inquisitor.

Like other university professors thrust into the unfamiliar public spotlight, he made some ridiculous gaffes and howlers. Most notable was when he went to his old university, Regensburg, in September 2006, and quoted the derogatory remarks of some medieval writer about the "essential violence" at the heart of Islam. It might have been a remark that one old professor could make to another with impunity behind the closed doors of a seminar room. But this was a public figure on the world stage about to make a state visit to Turkey. He spent his week in Istanbul apologizing.

When he came to Britain, with the prime purpose of beatifying his hero John Henry Newman, he surprised the secular and Protestant world by his gentleness and charm. When he addressed the crowd at Westminster Hall, the Members of Parliament listened, rapt, as he spoke of the new world order, European peace, and the need for justice. The raucous Scots loved the gentle, slightly camp, little professor, as he was paraded through the streets of Edinburgh wrapped in a specially designed tartan. And then in Hyde Park—polluted old Hyde Park in the middle of London, scene of pop concerts and political rallies of all persuasions, site of many a dodgy sexual encounter, and a million family picnics on the grass—the pope gave the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and for a while the mighty heart of a cynical, secular city was still.

So, Benedict is a bit of a mystery, more complicated than many of us wanted to imagine when he appeared. Was he a "good pope"? The mind goes to the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the wizard is winding up his scary-voice machinery behind a flimsy screen. When denounced by Dorothy as a very bad man, he answers: "Why, no my dear, I'm not a bad man, just a very bad wizard."

Ratzinger took over a church strapped for cash, riddled with the scandal of child abuse, and with numbers of mass attendance in the developed world hemorrhaging. He has been honest and repeatedly apologetic about the child abuse. (Maybe the Germans have just had to become very good at apologizing.) On the other hand, the inner world of the Vatican Court and the Roman Curia, the ministries that assist the pope in governing the church, sounds as murky as it ever did. When the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested last year for stealing documents, the ensuing scandal merely unearthed a snake pit of intrigue and corruption that we all knew had always been there. After all, the questions that hover over the Vatican Bank and the tales of money laundering go back beyond the pontificate of John Paul II, and the shady dealings of the Banco Ambrosiano.

And now, surely it is the sheer tackiness, the seediness, of the Vatican Court that will make the non-Italian cardinals unite to find an African or a South American to deliver them from themselves.

Between the covers: Benedict’s intellectual flexibility surprised many. Sean Gallup/Getty

Cardinal Newman agonized when Pope Pius IX declared himself to be infallible in 1870. When asked his opinion, Newman said he would drink to the pope—but conscience first. Maybe, by declaring his frailty in mind and body, Benedict is subtly endorsing Newman's verdict that the declaration of infallibility was, well, a mistake.

And perhaps Benedict has not lost all his old political cunning. Given his reasons for retiring, the College of Cardinals will look rather foolish if they elect yet another ancient European no one has ever heard of. The pressure will be on to elect a much younger man.

Already the electioneering has begun. Cardinal Turkson of Ghana, a spring chicken of 64, has said that it is time for the church to consider having a pope from South America or ... surprise, surprise, Africa.

Conspiracy theorists will be asking themselves whether, in standing down, Ratzinger wants to unleash some real conservatives on the church—those who believe in female circumcision and for whom gay rights or feminism are the works of Satan. I doubt that very much.

You don't need a conspiracy theory to guess why he is quitting. In a gentle way, he is a vain man, and he watched his predecessor die in public. He was there on the balcony while John Paul II stooped, drooled, stumbled, even on one occasion vomited, in public. It is to spare himself, and the faithful, a repetition of all those humiliations that the German shepherd is leaving the scene.