Pope Benedict's Conservative Agenda Could Fail

The child sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic priesthood—and the worldwide cover-up that seems, at least indirectly, to have involved Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he was elevated to the papacy—has embarrassed the Catholic Church and angered parishioners. It's a good bet Pope Benedict XVI won't resign under pressure; it's not his style and, more importantly, nobody can compel him. But that doesn't mean the scandal will simply go away. Benedict brought a clearly conservative moral agenda to the Vatican, and he has gone about implementing it slowly. Yet until he comes clean on what he knew—and fires bishops who mishandled abuse cases—his changes are likely to stall or fail altogether.

The pope's ideas about the church include his belief that interpreters of Vatican II overly weakened the church's teachings on salvation outside the church (that is, they relaxed the message that only Catholicism can lead to salvation), ecumenical relations with other Christian communities, abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, for example. There is already an air of widespread indifference, if not outright opposition, to some of Benedict's positions, such as those related to human sexuality and reproduction.

But the pope's minority agenda is avidly supported by various high-ranking officials in the Curia Romana (the papal "cabinet"), many cardinals and bishops around the world, and a number of conservative organizations like Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ. With Benedict at the helm, this group—many of whom implicitly regard the Second Vatican Council's reforms of the liturgy and the way authority is exercised in the church, from the bottom up rather than the top down, as a serious mistake and hope to repeal them—obviously has much greater clout than it otherwise would have. Through the pope's forceful personality and the adroit control of the Vatican's administrative machinery, Benedict has made headway in his rollback, especially in the appointment and promotion of like-minded bishops and curial officials, in his efforts to reverse some of the changes made at the 1965 council.

Now, though, the pope's moral authority is very much in doubt. Especially if additional cases surface, his teaching on moral matters will hold much less sway among ordinary Catholics. The indifference to his agenda would probably expand into outright rejection. And Benedict would likely be less able to draft undecided Catholics to his side, except perhaps the most conservative.

Damage to Pope Benedict XVI's moral authority would also probably affect his capacity to impose his conservative liturgical initiatives on the worldwide Church. Vatican II and the late Pope Paul VI were adamantly opposed to having two liturgical rites, functioning side-by-side in the Roman Catholic Church—one in the vernacular for the majority of Catholics, and one still in Latin for a deeply conservative minority. The Vatican II's reforms also led to the turning around of the altar in order to enhance what the council and Paul VI called "the active participation" of the laity in the church's main act of worship. But to Bendict, these are anathema, and he had hoped to turn the altar back away from the congregation, encourage the celebration of Mass in Latin, promote eucharistic adoration (a devotion outside of Mass that focuses one's attention and prayer on the consecrated Host), and support new and controversial translations of the texts for the Mass and the other sacraments that many find overly literal and stilted.

Each of these changes—they are often referred to as a "reform of the reform" by church insiders—requires political capital and widespread respect, even if it comes grudgingly. Yet with every day and every revelation, the pope has suffered a little more injury, and the collateral damage is a proportionate injury to his agenda. And with that would follow the sinking fortunes of the conservative Catholic minority, in the curia and beyond, who would like nothing better than the effective repeal of Vatican II.

In the Catholic Church, conservatives have been riding high since 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II. Five years ago, with the election of Benedict XVI, their power was reaffirmed, and conservatives have benefited, as noted above, from appointments to crucial posts and bishoprics. Now, with sexual-abuse scandals reaching the very highest office, their control is suddenly in jeopardy. If Benedict does not find a way to put down the controversy, their power will finally begin to ebb.