Deaf Ears and a Sinking Ship: Why Pope Benedict XVI Resigned

FILE - In this Thursday, March 25, 2010 file photo Pope Benedict XVI gestures from his popemobile as he leaves a youth gather
FILE - In this Thursday, March 25, 2010 file photo Pope Benedict XVI gestures from his popemobile as he leaves a youth gathering, in St. Peter's square, at the Vatican. When he became pope at age 78, Benedict XVI was already the oldest pontiff elected in nearly 300 years. He's now 85, and in recent years he has slowed down significantly, cutting back his foreign travel and limiting his audiences. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Why did Pope Benedict XVI announce his resignation Monday? I'd like to imagine he took a sweeping look at his career as a priest and prelate, and while not discounting the value of this contributions as an intellectual, took note of the degree to which he, during the course of his own and the previous pontificates, permitted the "power" to snuff out so much of the "glory." I like to imagine remorse moves him to wish to go off and pray -- for forgiveness, and for the broken church he leaves in shambles. As a practicing Catholic, I'd like to be able to "take" the "pope at his word," as Frank Bruni wrote (that he does) in his Feb. 11 New York Times opinion piece. But I cannot. I do not.

Here's how the papal apologists will spin Ratzinger's resignation. They will frame the decision as a bold and enlightened step. They will emphasize the humility in Ratzinger's decision to relieve a church in turmoil of the liability of an aging pontiff. This lacks the ring of truth. For more than five centuries a system, the Roman Catholic hierarchs placed great faith in a system of electing, honoring and burying popes, whereby a cabal of papal advisors kept an aging pope for life propped up (Ratzinger personally handled much of such propping up even before John Paul was in his dotage!). This was the tradition the tradition-loving cardinals favored.

Ratzinger's stepping down constitutes a dramatic break with tradition in a church in which tradition-loving Catholics cling for dear life to any shred of tradition they can grasp. The papal Public Relations team will deflect any suggestion that departing the papacy in advance of bodily death is in and of itself a soft scandal, and will insist that Ratzinger's resignation is neither a sign nor a symptom of a Catholic hierarchy utterly compromised by corruption. Corruption among the Roman Catholic prelates is hardly something new, but today's active Catholics, wherever they stand on the degree of orthodoxy spectrum, still approach the altar in hope that our church might mature as it endures. Joseph Ratzinger's retrograde disposition with its overemphasis on secrecy and obedience has led a majority of active Catholics to turn a deaf ear to the pontiff.

Did Joseph Ratzinger ever think he'd see the day when divorce would be legal in Italy, Catholics in Ireland would abandon the church, and a Women's Ordination movement driven in great measure by male priests ordained in the apostolic succession working with rebel nuns would burgeon and thrive? No. These are Ratzinger's losses. LGBT people can marry in Spain. Women can obtain legal abortions everywhere in Western Europe. I don't know a single practicing Catholic who believes that an abortion is murder -- though I know many who do oppose it.

In the United States, Roman Catholic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley, both men of strong Catholic faith, fought for marriage equality in their states and won. Fifty percent of American Catholics recently re-elected a president while the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) was suing him over the Health and Human Services Mandate. Are today's Catholics listening to the pope? Sometimes, perhaps. Mostly not.

In Latin America, Protestantism is expanding rapidly, for which reason the next pope might be Latino. The hierarchy has been in a race against time to convert the so-called "developing world" wherein Catholics still listen, but those same regions are currently ravaged by AIDS, poverty and malnutrition; this, while the Magisterium holds fast to its teaching on the use of condoms, which is why I think the next pope will be an African.

The first thing I thought about when I read the news Monday was the the August 2012 death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, whom many Catholics viewed as our last chance for liberal pope. He died at the age of 85, long out of the running, but he had a strong voice. No one outside the College of Cardinals can know, but Martini's death may have made it safer for Ratzinger to step down confident that when the white smoke ascends, a cardinal well-groomed by Ratzinger (but not nearly so smart) might be elevated.

And I thought of Alex Gibney's documentary "Mea Maxima Culpa," which I'd seen two nights earlier. One of the most chilling moments in this film, is the moment when a survivor testifies that Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest who committed sex crimes against more than 200 children, made a special effort to select deaf (and mute) boys whose parents had not learned to communicate by sign language when picking victims -- children who (literally) could not tell their parents.

I thought of how the CDF (Confederation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Office of Inquisitions) was in charge of such cases. While pondering the pope's reasons for stepping down, it's hard to push away the knowledge that Ratzinger was the man in charge of the CDF between 1981 and 2005, that the buck stopped with Ratzinger, and that in his capacity of CDF Prefect, he implemented policy designed to decrease transparency in the handling of sex crimes perpetrated against children by priests. I remembered that justice had finally caught up with alleged pedophile priest enabler Cardinal Roger Mahony only a few weeks ago and wondered whether that new development catalyzed Ratzinger's extraordinary decision to leave.

Before Monday, I had thought Ratzinger would leave the papacy horizontally, amid funerary pomp. I sometimes even thought he might leave in handcuffs, and be carted off to the Hague. I don't believe age or infirmity have much to do with this strategic exit. Deaf ears is what I think of when I think of Ratzinger and his departure from the throne. Deaf ears and a Ratzinger scurrying off his sinking ship.