How Pope Benedict Outclassed John Paul II

John Paul II grew so popular and famous that his personality outshone the church. Tommaso Bonaventura/Contrasto/Redux

How many people in the world can raise an eyebrow, never mind an uproar, by resigning a job in their mid-eighties? The queen of England? The Dalai Lama? Fidel Castro?

What do these people have in common? A total identification of the individual with the role, as king, religious leader, or dictator. The first two categories seem more or less acceptable; they survive from a distant past where even more ordinary people—miller, merchant, or knight—found themselves born into their jobs; then, of course, today's kings and queens have largely abandoned real power for an entertainment role of glamour and celebrity. The aging dictators are less appealing: pretending revolution and modernity, they rule just like ancient despots.

Like them or not, all these people who remain in their posts into extreme old age are masters of theater. Actor and part have become one; these guys can't leave the stage. They're trapped there in the public eye, forever rehearsing ancient rituals in fancy dress; the opening of Parliament, the May Day parade, the Angelus. For all their prestige there's not much to distinguish them from the living dead, ghosts condemned to reappear, for our benefit, at the same time and place each week, month, or year, wearing the same clothes, making the same ritual gestures.

Even among these inveterate actors, the popes have always been a special case. You could not inherit the papacy. You had to put yourself forward, maneuver, play politics. Machiavelli remarks on the peculiarity in The Prince: in reality elected by their peers, the popes were then supposed, like a king—or far more than a king—to have been appointed by God and to enjoy semi-divine status, Christ's vicar on earth. The name of the old, earthly hustler was set aside and a holy name assumed: John Paul II instead of Karol Wojtyła, Benedict XVI instead of Joseph Ratzinger. So, unlike the self-made usurper, Machiavelli remarks, they enjoyed the same solid institutional support and complacent public backing as an established hereditary monarch. This, added to their spiritual clout, made them extremely powerful. The only drawback was that these men rarely came to the papacy young enough to do much with it. In Machiavelli's day the average papacy lasted 10 years. Curiously, that has hardly changed.

But Papa Wojtyła, the predecessor of the present pope, lasted 29 years, the second-longest papal reign in history. And when you look at Papa Ratzinger's sudden and surprising resignation, and particularly the tone of sadness and defeat with which it was announced, in mumbling Latin, as if hoping the use of that dead language would somehow shield him from the full blast of the world media, it has to be seen in the light of John Paul II's extraordinary success and popularity.

Wojtyła's great stroke of luck was that he took over the papacy in circumstances that allowed him to make conservatism popular. The papal role is tradition incarnate. Pomp and theater. You can be a reformer and perhaps be loved for it, but reform is always a threat to something as ancient as the papacy. Much better to be a popular conservative. Wojtyła, the 264th pope, came after John Paul I whose papacy, in 1978, lasted just 33 days. Anxious to avoid any insinuation that God did not always choose well through the conclave of cardinals, the Vatican cast about for someone young and healthy. Wojtyła was 58, a jogger, swimmer, and skier. So for the first time since 1523 the cardinals elected a non-Italian pope. This huge departure immediately created a sense of openness to the world, of enthusiasm and change, without the man himself needing to be liberal or iconoclastic in any way.

John Paul II maximized the pomp and grandeur of the church. Franco Origlia/Getty

Not only was Wojtyła not Italian, he was Polish. Poland was Europe's victim nation par excellence; the Poles had suffered under the Nazis and were suffering miserably under the Soviet Union when Wojtyła was elected. They attracted automatic sympathy. Wojtyła was on the side of democratic reform against Soviet communism. Again he could seem revolutionary without holding, in theological or social terms, any liberal opinions at all. He was on our side in the one battle of the time that counted; his healthy pink face under Rome's ancient mitre, his robust peasant physique in the symbolic silk trappings of his office, galvanized the whole of a decrepit and rusty tradition and thrust it like a battering ram against the Iron Curtain. How could we not be delighted?

Adding coincidence to charisma, Wojtyła had the immense good luck to survive an assassination attempt by an obscure Turkish terrorist. Shot through the stomach, the healthy body that had brought ancient liturgy to vibrant life was suddenly fragile, endearing. Since nobody was quite sure who was behind the attempted murder—Russia? some rival religious group?—Wojtyła and the Roman papacy could now be seen as a champion against all the world's dark forces. When the Soviet Union began to break up in the late 1980s, many insisted it was all Wojtyła's doing: without the pope, Eastern Europe would never have been free.

These political excitements, the man's endless travels, his smiling face upon kissing the earth in more than a hundred countries, his undeniable charisma hid the fact of how reactionary and old-fashioned he was. And how superstitious: close to death after the assassination attempt, he was conscious enough to ask surgeons not to remove his scapular, a small devotional vestment dedicated to the Virgin; later he seemed to attribute his survival to the fact that the shooting had taken place "on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to poor little peasants has been remembered for over 60 years at Fátima, Portugal." Who does not love a man with magic on his side? In reality the pope's body had been put back together by five hours of expert surgery.

Meantime, Wojtyła opposed liberation theology in South America, warned an AIDs-devastated Africa not to use condoms, presided over the cover-up of God knows what wrong-doings in the Vatican bank (remember the death of Calvi, God's banker, under Blackfriars Bridge?), did little to defend the young from pedophile priests, went cold on the Anglican Church when they allowed women to become priests, opposed official recognition—let alone marriage—of gay couples, and so on. All over Europe, church attendance was falling off rapidly. It didn't matter. Wojtyła had brought an energy and humanity to those musty robes and antique ceremonies that allowed everybody to believe that the Church with a capital letter was alive and well. Everywhere—London, Cairo, Manila, Washington, Jerusalem—delirious crowds flocked to greet him. There were times when it seemed that with a pope like Wojtyła it really wasn't important whether people went to mass or not. All on his own he took the church to them. In Italy, where I have lived for 30 years, he was on our televisions every day, and everything he said was held to be profound, brilliant, friendly, humble, revolutionary.

Irish bishops waiting to discuss the pedophilia scandal with Benedict. Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

Finally he gave us his illness, Parkinson's, in gleaming robes. In 2000, soccer fan that I am, I remember watching the so-called Match of Faith, sponsored by the church as part of their Jubilee celebrations. Wojtyła was to be present at the Olympic stadium in Rome for an all-star match that set Italy against the rest of the world. Throughout the game the camera switched repeatedly from the players to a slumping pope who clearly had difficulty lifting his heavy, round head from hunched shoulders. "The real champion here is Giovanni Paolo," the commentator repeated with determined enthusiasm. "A real athlete for God."

Only a man with immense reserves of popularity could have done this to us. The slurred voice, the failing body. He gave us the old and ugly lesson of mortality. Yet the fervor of TV pundits and newspaper editorialists never relented. They just could not get enough of his decrepitude. At times he looked little more than those mummified bodies in vestments you see in some crypts in southern Italy. Clearly incapable in the last months of even the most elementary tasks, this man continued to occupy the papacy to his last rattling breath. "You don't climb down from your cross," he apparently told his secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz. In April 2005 Papa Wojtyła's funeral was attended by an estimated 4 million pilgrims and more heads of state than had ever before been gathered in one place.

Who would want to follow such an act? Age 78 at the time, Joseph Ratzinger had been at Wojtyła's side for 20 years and more. He had seen how it was done. But his collaboration was mainly on the conservative side of Wojtyła's papacy. In 1981 he had been made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a policing position that won him the unhappy nickname of God's Rottweiler. He was German of course, and with the best will in the world it has to be said that it is easier, at least in Europe, to see a Pole in a position of power than a German (or an Englishman or a Frenchman for that matter). His participation as a boy in the Hitler Youth movement was no doubt routine and irrelevant, but did not help. Nor somehow did the very name, Ratzinger. These things should not be important, but they are. Above all, though, and however fine a man he may be, this new pope simply lacked the radiant energy of his predecessor. Television had brought us up close to the role. Now, suddenly the lavish robes and heavy ecclesiastical trappings were more impressive than the man himself. The actor wasn't even up to the costume, never mind the part. What we were seeing was the inertia of the Vatican machine, not a leader. In the absence of an engaging personality, the reactionary politics he shared with Wojtyła became all too obvious; likewise the gaffes at the expense of Muslims, the bizarre claim, in Africa, that condoms actually encouraged AIDS.

Under JP II’s tenure the pedophilia scandal festered and grew. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Eventually, Ratzinger was simply overwhelmed with all the bad news that Wojytla's glittering tenancy had been storing up: the pedophile scandal; another banking scandal; his own butler arrested as a spy; the dramatic collapse in church attendance in Ireland. One can imagine the man's sense of failure. In Italy, the media did everything to pretend that things were just as positive as under Wojtyła—there is simply no end to the capacity for denying the obvious in certain circles. Casting about for reasons to praise, journalists repeatedly asked us to be excited by the notion that this German pope was a sophisticated theologian; a thinker, they declared with inexplicable enthusiasm, who had actually proved the compatibility of reason and faith. It is hard to imagine anything less inspiring.

Yet at the death, or rather somewhat before the death, Ratzinger, arguably, in a single gesture, has done more for the church and the papacy than Wojtyła ever did. Indeed of the two, I suspect the Polish star was the one who did the damage, turning the institution into a one-man show. One of the most depressing tenets of Catholic doctrine has been its fear of extending personal choice into those areas of life where the church feels we must just accept our fate: we must not use contraceptives, we must not choose to leave a partner we married many years ago, we must not choose the moment of our deaths, however much pain we are in. By remaining in his job until his death, a pope was to show that he too accepted his destiny and renounced personal choice. For 600 years no pope had resigned his position. Wojtyła's much-televised terminal illness stressed this culture of masochistic acceptance in a quite grotesque orgy of pathos. And now, in a single, simple gesture, the arch-conservative Ratzinger finally shows us what it means to exercise reason in harmony with faith. In a few Latin words he tells us that he is a man, not the pope, and that there is nothing to be gained by his staying nailed up there on the cross of papal duty, for him or anyone else. It is an act of rebellion and individual choice that demystifies the papacy, but suddenly makes it possible again, opens the way, post-Wojtyła, for a different, less heady, kind of leadership. It is extraordinary to think, though, that with this one sensible decision, this unimpressive man has set himself in the history books more surely and radically than his interminably glamorous predecessor.