Behind the Façade of Piety

Pope Benedict’s resignation allows for a look behind the façade of the Catholic Church. For too long, the Vatican has covered up its dark underbelly with embellished liturgical practices.

What will history remember about the pontificate of Benedict XVI? Certainly the events of the last few days: His decision to resign is unprecedented in recent times. The pope’s humbleness, wisdom, and awareness of his personal limitations deserve our respect. But we must also be allowed to consider his human – all too human – motives before Benedict’s hagiographers conserve a specific version of his resignation story for posterity.

His decision, now hailed by politicians as “heroic,” can be interpreted differently as well: By resigning, Benedict has created a huge strategic advantage for himself that none of his predecessors enjoyed. He is now well-positioned to pull the strings (unofficially, of course) as preparations for the selection of the next pope progress. After taking up temporary residence at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict wants to move back to the Vatican and spend the rest of his life in prayer. But the mere fact of his presence will weigh heavily on his successor.

In any case, the problems of the old pope will be the problems of the new pope as well. It’s a sign of greatness that Benedict has included a plea for forgiveness in his resignation announcement. His plea might allow for a critical assessment of the problems of the Catholic Church.

The failure of the Church to adequately address the abuse scandal is undeniable. Not the countless cases of child abuse constitute the main scandal (although each instance of abuse is horrible in itself). The true scandal lies in the fact that the Vatican failed to act for decades when rumors and accusations came to light. Benedict – who served as arch bishop of Munich before leading the Congregration for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome – seems to have been much deeper involved in delays and cover-ups than most observers previously recognized.

When Ratzinger’s crisis management failed, new strategies were quickly devised: the media was criticized for reporting on the scandal, and the Vatican huddled around the idea that “the smoke of Satan” was slowly penetrating through cracks in the Church’s outer shell. Instead of contemplating reforms of the structure of Catholic seminaries (which consciously keep clerics at the developmental stage of pre-pubescent teenagers), and instead of addressing the fact that the parallel universe of the Catholic Church appealed to many mentally fragile individuals, the Church withdrew inward, into yet another parallel universe that provided fertile ground for abusive practices.

Related to this trend is the turn towards anti-modernist thinking, which became most pronounced under Benedict XVI. His successor will have to reverse some of the decisions of the last few years if Christendom is to avoid the biggest threat to its existence. Indeed, the turn towards anti-modernism can be understood as a tightly orchestrated remodeling of the Church, from a popular force into a fundamentalist sect of epic proportions. Benedict’s speech in Germany in the fall of 2011 provided the distinct manifesto: A retreat to old ecclesiastical bastions, the embrace of Opus Dei ideology, a weakness for the faith of a small but powerful elite.

To outsiders, the prevalence of homophobia in Benedict’s proclamations and among his entourage was truly puzzling. Whenever homosexual love among men was mentioned, Benedict seemed to regard it as proof of the influence of the forces of evil. Proposals to liberalize the Church’s position were equated with anarchic nightmares and the decline of the Occident.

Benedict was driven by a “panicky fear” of homosexuals. None of his predecessors had spoken as much, and with as much contempt, about homosexuality, about gay men and their fight for equality and against discrimination. The culmination of this trend were statements from inside the Vatican that supported Uganda’s government in its proposal to re-introduce the death penalty for homosexual acts. Homosexuals were also used as scapegoats during the abuse scandal.

The homophobic traditions of Benedict’s pontificate go hand in hand with his aesthetic preferences. The focus was always on the appearance of holiness, on the careful construction of a façade of devout practice. Benedict revived the use of ornate clothes and accessories from the time of Pope Pius X and the anti-modernist epoch of Catholic history.

Liturgical simplicity, which had resulted from the liturgy reform in the late 1960s under the guidance of Pope Paul VI, was replaced within a few years with the hypertrophy of aesthetics under Benedict XVI. It provided the outward façade for the hypertrophy of the sacred, which positioned the Catholic Church as the sole palladium of holy practice. Mass under Benedict resembled a piece of performance art, steeped in gigantic traditions. The images that resulted from the staging were impressive, distinctive, and entertaining. They supplied the Catholic Church with a clearly recognizable label.

Yet they also exposed the dilemma of papal PR: The devout veil – complete with clouds of incense and elaborately embroidered robes –could never fully conceal the mishaps and problems of the Church. It barely hid the darker side, the Church’s inhumanity, abuses of power, enforced loyalty, and blackmailing – especially in the case of priests who violated their celibacy vow. The floridness of the outer appearance was only matched by the inner sanctimoniousness of the Catholic Church.

Legend has it that Saint Thomas Aquinas went silent at the end of his life when all ecclesiastical things to which he had devoted his life suddenly seemed like “mere straw” and fake. It’s too early to tell whether Benedict’s resignation will lead to a similar revelation that exposes the empty façade of the Church. Judging by history, the failures and embarrassment of the pope’s reign will eventually recede into the background. But for Benedict’s successor, they still constitute a heavy burden.

Read more in this debate: Paulus Terwitte.

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