(RNS) When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, the surprising choice cast a pall over the liberal wing of the flock and left conservatives giddy with the prospect of total victory. Ratzinger had for decades served as the Vatican’s guardian of orthodoxy, the man known as “God’s Rottweiler,” and his vocal fans were crowing about the glorious reign to come.

benedict xvi

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd during one of his weekly general audiences in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2007. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.


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“He’ll correct the lackadaisical attitudes that have been able to creep into the lives of Catholics,” the Rev. M. Price Oswalt, an Oklahoma City priest who was in St. Peter’s Square that April day, told The New York Times. “He’s going to have a German mentality of leadership: either get on the train or get off the track. He will not put up with rebellious children.”

Now, however, with Benedict set to leave office eight years later in an unprecedented departure, many on the Catholic right are counting up the ways that Benedict failed them, and wondering how their favorite watchdog turned into a papal pussycat.

“Although Pope Benedict XVI’s highly unusual resignation is said to be for reasons of health, it fits the character of his papacy: All his initiatives remain incomplete,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, a Latin Mass enthusiast, lamented at Slate the day the pope made the shocking announcement that he would resign on Feb. 28.

“He was consciously elected to rescue the church from itself, but he failed to finish what he started,” Dougherty said.

Since then the criticisms have continued to come in from a range of onetime champions, and on a spectrum of issues: Benedict did not sufficiently clean house in the clergy sex abuse scandal and did not appoint enough hard-liners to the hierarchy; he did not bring the old Latin Rite schismatics fully back in the fold, a mission that will likely end with his pontificate; he was too quick to mollify Muslims or pursue ecumenical gestures; and he charted, as Dougherty put it, “a precarious middle course” theologically.

Even his three encyclicals — the most authoritative documents a pope writes — focused on social justice issues and often embraced the kind of liberal policy prescriptions that sent conservatives into conniptions.

To be sure, liberals would note that theologians and even American nuns were investigated and disciplined under Benedict’s rule, and he appointed some pretty serious conservatives as bishops and promoted others to the College of Cardinals that will choose one of their number to succeed Benedict.

But if he was not exactly a pleasant surprise to the left, neither did he fulfill the great expectations of the right.

That vaunted German managerial instinct? It seemed to have no effect, as the Vatican under Benedict became a mismanaged palace of court intrigue and financial scandals, lurching from gaffe to disaster, and all exposed to public view when the pope’s own butler leaked reams of internal papal documents.

Benedict was “as bad as a pope has been for 200 years,” Joseph Bottum wrote in a withering verdict delivered in the latest edition of The Weekly Standard. “All in all,” he said, “a terrible executive of the Vatican.”

Even his resignation confounded many of his conservative supporters.

Some saw Benedict’s act as a repudiation of the decision by his predecessor, John Paul II, to die with his boots on despite his public struggle with infirmity — a move conservatives at the time loudly proclaimed the only possible option. Others, like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, worried that Benedict, this most traditional of churchmen, was introducing a modern innovation that would undermine future popes and embolden those looking for a more accountable papacy.

So how is it that Catholic conservatives could go so quickly from ecstasy to agony? To a great degree, it is the way of the world, even in the church.

Partisans tend to graft their own agendas and aspirations onto their favored candidates, whether presidents or popes. Sacred conclaves are hotbeds of messianism every bit as much as today’s domestic electoral process, in part because the church is not immune from politics or polarization.

Disappointment was inevitable because the hopes of Benedict’s fans had blinded them to the parts of his writings (on charity and justice, for example) or his personality traits (such as his loyalty to friends, no matter how incompetent) that didn’t fit with their plans.

That leads to a second factor, which is that popes may enjoy great authority but they cannot act like autocrats. Benedict, more than his supporters, knew he had to be the pastor of a huge global flock, not just a “bad cop” who tells people to follow the rules and drums them out when they disobey. As he told dinner companions early in his pontificate, “It was easy to know the doctrine. It’s much harder to help a billion people live it.”

Finally, Ratzinger was always at heart — and in his head — a scholar and theologian. He had a German’s intellectual bearing but little of his countrymen’s renowned knack for organization. “I am not an administrator,” he warned his fellow cardinals during the 2005 conclave as he saw the momentum swinging in his direction.

Benedict spoke the truth then, as clearly as he always did. The irony is that his most ardent fans, rather than his liberal foes, apparently did not want to listen.

29 Comments

  1. Isn’t like the “rigt wing” to hold on to their own agenda! They appear selfrighteous, that they think that they have the Holy Spirit by the tail! I am a traditional Catholic and praise God for the reign of Pope Benedict! Maybe those who appear selfrighteous would do well to imitate our Holy Father’s profound humility and trust in the workings of the Holy Spirit. The “right winger” are equally as devisive as the “liberals”. As St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, virtue remains in the middle!
    Let up pray with trust for the Conclave’s deliberations.

    • @Anthony:

      “right wingers” are usually defined as traditional Catholics. Traditional Catholics are typically thought of as “divisive” in that they cling to the Old Mass as opposed to the New Mass or Novos Ordo and divide congregations into old and new. My parents are Traditional Catholics and only go to the Latin Mass. Those of us in the Novos Ordo are thought by them to attend, “nothing.”

  2. Thank God for Pope Benedict, the Vicar of Christ, the Servant of the Servants of God. I am tired of the political terms conservative and liberal being used by Roman Catholic believers. They are secular political terms. In the Church the proper terms are orthodox or heterodox — believing in the immutable and unchanging reality of all that the Church teaches has been revealed to Her by God in Christ or believing that revelation is open to interpretation and change.

      • And then are we to assume that the Church in the early centuries established orthodoxy with nothing more to guide then than Jesus’ example of living in His moment by way of principles that could be applied well in future times with different circumstances. Orthodox, smorshodox – as if we could “break” the Church in our ineptitude.

        Don’t you mean locked in your or an other’s interpretation of past times in which you did not live or were not mature enough (Who ever is?) to fully grasp in Faith. Its termed a Journey for reason – walk humbly has always seemed sensible to me.

  3. God bless Pope Benedict! As an traditional Catholic I am very happy with his accomplishments. Making changes in the Church is likened to steering a massive ship. His great accomplishments are the liturgical reforms, the healing of some of ruptures since Vatican 2, and the bringing of some of Anglicans back into the fold. He has also made some great strides with the Orthodox and even the Lutherans. It may takes years or decades for the full fruits of these efforts to become manifest, but that is the nature of the Church. For a man that started his pontificate at age 78 that is quite amazing. I would also mention his numerous high quality writings including his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth.

    • @Vic:

      I wish he had done more to reign in the American Catholic Church. That Caroline kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and others “professed” to be “Catholic” and promoted abortion, practice totally against the teachings of the Catholic Church and were NOT censured has upset me to no end. IN the old days, such a Catholic was censured and denied communion at the rail to show they were NOT in communion with the Church. That they were not “worthy” to partake of the Lord’s Body and Blood because they were known to be in mortal sin. I wish Pope Benedict had reigned in more of these “priests” and instead of moving them around when allegations of abuse abounded they would have been removed immediately from their pastorates until further notice. YOu cannot ‘LEAVE” a priest in a pastorate with such a charge or move them around. And, I wish he would have spent more time actually visiting the United STates. I do not remember ever hearing him have a state to state visit here. HE needed to gather all the United States Bishops in a conference and talk to them about what was expected of them to operate in the Roman Catholic Church. He definitely need to reign in ROGUE Catholic College priests like Fr. Jennings of Fordham and Georgetown Catholic College is a national disgrace to the Catholic Church

      • Right on Shorelineliz! Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Judging by the fruits of this Pontificate, I think we can safely say without offending Our Lord that B16 was an anti-pope. He was censored by Pope Pius XII as being under suspicion of heresy and he worked with 6 Protestant ministers to change the Mass into an “Abomination of Desolation;” worshipped with Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in praise of their false gods; allowed children to be ruined for life by his pedophile priests, bishops, and archbishops whom he refused to reign in. How in the world did B16 expect us to subscribe to his “New Evangelization” when the last religion a non-catholic parent would want their children raised up in would be a church full to the brim with pedophilia? Anyway, you Novus Ordo people need to start doing some research into VII documents and stop being so bottle-fed by Newchurch leaders who have been exploiting our obedience to the Papacy.

  4. These disappointed ‘conservatives’ apparently are unaware that this pope’s ‘insufficient’ achievements have come despite the unrelenting resistance of the high level Masons in the hierarchy. It is called Eccesiastical Masonry and it isn’t a myth. This is what Benedict meant in his first homily as pope when he said “pray for me that I may not flee from the wolves.” Statements from guys like Dougherty should not be given any more respect than those of any other buffoon.

    • John D, B16 didn’t want to flee from the wolves because he was the head of the pack! He helped to write the documents of VII–those documents that hijacked our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church! Get to know Church History–Pope Pius V decreed that the Latin Mass was to be said “in perpetuity!” And no successor is allowed to change anything that a former Pope states in any of his decrees. There is so much I still don’t know about the Catholic Faith, but thank God He gave me the grace to see that the Novus ordo church is in cohoots with the New World Ordo. And that’s what Novus Ordo means–New Order–get it? We never needed a New Mass–what was handed down through Tradition, the Tridentine Latin Mass, was more than sufficient, and I might add–much more reverent!

  5. There is no “right” and “left” in the Catholic Church, so apparently whoever wrote this article has a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholocism. The Catholic Church, albeit it has political elements because of its presence in the world, is PRIMARILY not a political institution, but the mystical body of Christ, the Church founded by Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Bride of Christ which Jesus Himself said would be populated with both wheat and weeds! Consequently, there is no “right” or “left” Catholics. There are only authentic and non-authentic Catholics. Anyone who does not believe in the teachings of the Church and thinks the Church needs to change with the times is not an authentic Catholic. Why such persons want to stay in a Church with which they disagree on many fundamental issues has always been a mystery to me. I should finally note that Benedict to authentic Catholics has been anything but a disappointment. He has allowed and promoted the Latin Mass, has provided a more accurate English translation of the liturgy, has contributed much to the authentic understanding of Vatican II, and has indeed done much to deal with the awful sex abuse scandal (incidentally, which, as the media refuses to report, is more of a problem with homosexual priests than with pedophile priests.) Anyone who ignores such is ignoring the facts. God bless Benedict XVI for his faithful service to Holy Mother Church!

    • In 1968, Ratzinger wrote that it was incorrect to classify the bishops at Vatican II as “progressive” or “conservative”. But he did not, like you do, pretend that there were no differences. On the contrary, he pointed out that the division was between those who looked to the short-to-medium-term past for guidance—the traditions of the 16th-19th centuries; and those who looked to the distant past—to the roots of Christianity, to Jesus and the early Christians. That is still true today. Those we label loosely as “right-wing” generally cling to a tradition of a couple of hundred years, and are less enthusiastic about examining the Church and its conduct in the light of its foundational teachers and principles.

  6. Initially concerned about the resignation, keeping a tight rein on those who have an agenda can be difficult. I think Pope Benedict realized that a healthy Pope was the best to lead the Church in these times. I believe God has the Plan for His Church.

  7. Benedict XVI needs our prayers,judging anyone is reserved for and by Christ alone. Christ told us to love our enemies & to pray for them.If you don’t forgive others, your heavenly Father will not forgive you.No one ever lives up to everyone’s expectations.The important thing is to do our best to live up to God’s by following His new commandment “Love one another as I have Loved you” . Pray for Benedict XVI and his successor.

  8. When he goes on to his eternal reward, I think he deserves to be remembered as “Benedict the Great” solely for writing Summorum Pontificum, the Emancipation Proclamation for the Traditional Latin Mass. It’s disappointing that many bishops are still holding out with liturgical Jim Crow, but I’ll be forever grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for taking those first steps toward restoration.

  9. Pope Benedict XVI is one of the towering minds of the 20th adn 21st century and we were incredibly blessed to have him as our Holy Father for 8 years. I pray he has some years in retirement to pray and write – his proposed last encyclical on faith may appear later in some other form if he is given the time. I agree – there is no right or left – we are “Catholic” – the fringes belie their own focus on things other than the Church’s mission. Fr. Robert Barron said that this Pope’s three main points will be remembered as continuity with the true meaning of the second Vatican Council (which he should know better than anyone as he was there!), affirnative orthodoxy (meaning spreading the joy of the faith) and a return to a Christocentric focus of the Church. Bravo Benedict – he will always have my love and esteem, I wish he didnt have to go, but I understand.

  10. At last, and of course inevitably, the ancient power-and-control “religious” leaderships have failed. And “official” power-and-control-seeking Christianity is now reduced to all the impenetrable illusions and decadent exercises that everywhere characterize previously privileged aristocracies in their decline from worldly power.
    Now ecept a Spiritual Revolution occurs (which will not, and can not occur from within the worldly fortress that is the “Catholic” church), Christianity is reduced to a chaos of market-share-seeking corporate cults and BARNUMESQUE clown like propagandists who rule nothing more than chaotic herds of self-deluded religion-consumers in the market-place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religion.

    Therefore, the myth and lie of the “cultural superiority” of “official” Christianity has now come full circle. The “religious” mythologies of the so called “great” world religions are not only now waging global wars with one another, but the public masses of “religion-bound” people – who, all over the world, for even thousands of years, have been controlled in body and mind by ancient institutions of “religiously” propagandized worldly-power – are now in a globalized state of grossly bound fear saturated, robotized and unconscious “religious” delusion and social psychosis.

  11. Ratzinger pontificate has been a un-mitigated disaster.The fact is that he was never a true Pope anyway,but an Anti-Pope.As the be-suited Father Ratzinger at the Second Vatican Council,he was one of the ring leaders and progenitors to sow his seeds of destruction into the Roman Catholic Church,and to destroy it,and the irony is that 47 years on,Ratzinger is reaping what he sowed.He undermined everything good and decent about the Church,as the dangerous Modernist he is.The comments written by others on this site,have no idea of Ratzinger heresies and apostasy and blasphemy.The Holy Office of Pope Pius XII named him on suspiscion of heresy.Ratzinger should not be pitied or be prayed for,but be damned for the ecclesiastical criminal he is.Archbishop Lefebvre summed him up quite succinctly when he described him as “Uncatholic”.

  12. These very arrogant, autocratic attitudes of conservative religious are the reason the Catholic Church cannot continue as the single unity that many think it is now. The vast divide between so-called conservative and less conservative Catholics only means there are already two different churches. That is precisely why the Vatican is ineffective in acting as in bygone eras.

    Too many in the hierarchy still think they can hand out edicts of belief or practice to intelligent, informed, thinking adults, young or older, and just obtain immediate, unquestioning obedience. It just is not that way anymore. Too many lay people have caught up with, even surpassed, the clergy in their own business and other learning.

    The current, quieter reformation than that of Luther’s time, because the hierarchy no longer has the civil influence it had then, is going to make the reformation of Luther and others of his time pale by comparison.

    The Vatican church is dying. It has become a relic like the false ones that were being sold along with indulgences in Luther’s time. Piece by piece, what we have known as “church” will disappear. Set-apart clothing, other regalia, exotic ritual will be replaced with the ordinary. Changes the lay people of God have a right to demand will evolve.

    Lay people, the super-vast majority of the people of God, can no longer be forbidden full say in church affairs and only be expected to drop their bucks in collection baskets so the hierarchy can determine how those bucks are spent–especially to sleazy accountants and lawyers to cover up the corruption of priests and bishops.

    It is only one papal change that is taking place now. There will be more, and they will be vastly different until the papacy is completely eliminated and all the people of God have full participation in all church matters..

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