By Victor Thorn
UPDATE: Election of Pope Francis fuels hopes for Catholic reform
On February 11, Pope Benedict XVI, aged 85, during a routine meeting, announced that he would retire at the end of February due to increasingly poor health. On February 25, he gave his last papal mass and officially stepped down on February 28. On that day, AMERICAN FREE PRESS spoke with three Catholic religious leaders, who have either personally met Pope Benedict or attended one of his masses, to get an idea of what transpired over the past few weeks in Rome and what will become of the Catholic Church in the coming years.
Amid rumors that there were other reasons surrounding Benedict’s resignation—the first such move since 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down—AFP interviewed John Hunt, executive director of Legatus, a popular Florida-based organization comprised of Catholic business leaders that’s been active since 1987.
Hunt said the pope’s resignation was simply due to growing concerns about his health.
“In October 2011, I saw the pope,” said Hunt. “He looked quite frail at that time. Then, last fall, some of my associates flew to Rome and said he appeared even feebler, with a noticeable decline in health. Being 85-years-old, Benedict felt that he needed to turn over his responsibilities to someone with more vitality who could serve the church.”
Taking a somewhat different approach was Christine Schenk, executive director of a group named Future Church, which is focused on growing the church and turning back the shrinking number of Catholic priests around the world.
“There’s a great deal of chaos in the church’s upper bureaucracy,” remarked Ms. Schenk. “The pope realized they’re facing serious issues, so considering his health, resignation was a responsible decision.”
When asked if Benedict moved aside to facilitate a conservative successor, Ms. Schenk replied, “I don’t think Benedict could stack the deck even if he wanted to. However, there has been a five-year power struggle within the Vatican between Benedict and Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Their rivalry was an open secret.”
Sodano has been dean of the College of Cardinals since 2005, and is considered one of the most powerful men in the church today.
Ms. Schenk elaborated on these internal battles that plague the church.
“There are widespread transparency problems within the church regarding sexual impropriety, banking scandals and no-bid contracts at Vatican City,” said Ms. Schenk. “Whereas Sodano opposed addressing matters involving serial pedophiles, Benedict and Archbishop Carlo Vigano, who he personally put in place, tried to clean up these messes. A lot of people didn’t like Vigano’s role as a reformer, so he made plenty of enemies.” On August 13, 2011, Benedict appointed Vigano to be the Vatican’s United States ambassador.
Schenk added that many of the problems stem from Pope John Paul II and Benedict’s insistence on maintaining “hyper-centralized authority” when it comes to the church.
“Absolute monarchies don’t work in the 21st century,” said Ms. Schenk. “The papacy has never been this centralized throughout its history. Thirty or 40 men inside the Vatican won’t delegate authority to bishops who are better positioned to understand their parishioners’ needs.”
Dr. Anthony Padovano agreed with this contention. As a Catholic theologian and former president of Corpus, the nation’s oldest Catholic reform movement, Padovano offered this suggestion: “The church’s single major issue is collegiality. They need to bring more people into the discussion and make them feel like they’re part of the process.”
He continued: “I think the Vatican needs to create an inclusive priesthood open to both celibate and married men. Such a move would be more reflective of what Christ wanted. Jesus never said the priesthood should be limited to just unmarried men. Peter, one of his own apostles, was married.” Cardinals, bishops, theologians, laity and parishioners all favor restoration to a time before 1129 A.D. when the priesthood wasn’t restricted by celibacy.”
Was Health Only Reason Pope Stepped Down?
By Victor Thorn
The official pronouncement from the Vatican regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement is that the octogenarian church leader felt his failing health was preventing him from adequately fulfilling his duties as the pontiff of a global church. In spite of this, though, rumors persist that there is more to the story.
Even Benedict’s explanation about his medical condition didn’t suffice. Those who watch the church closely have long discussed his illnesses, depression and clandestine midnight trips to the emergency room.
Possibly closer to the mark, another favorite topic revolved around a raging civil war—even a mutiny—within the Vatican.
To fend off these disparate factions, most of the 117 cardinals set to select the next pope had been hand-picked by Benedict and John Paul II.
Italy’s most popular daily newspaper, la Repubblica, along with other mainstream periodicals, have reported that Benedict’s exit may have resulted from a 300-page secret report issued last December. Citing anonymous sources inside the Vatican, these publications hinted at a host of homosexual priests being blackmailed by male prostitutes. Overwhelmed, they theorized that Benedict made a hasty retreat due to the magnitude of these allegations.
Will Church Continue Multicultural Trend?
• New pope could be from South America, Africa, the Philippines, Europe or United States
By Victor Thorn
Even among AFP’s Catholic readers, deep schisms exist between those who feel the church should preserve its conservative traditions and others who are convinced that a more multicultural approach is necessary to reflect changes in the 21st century.
One major push within certain sects is the selection of a non-European pope. As it stands now, 42% of all Catholics reside in Latin America, while another 15% are from Africa. By contrast, only one-quarter of Catholics call an increasingly secular Europe home.
In this light, will the Vatican open its arms to a Third World pope such as Lima’s Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne or Argentina’s Cardinal Leonardo Sandri? Another contender is Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson who spent his school days in New York and Rome. Finally, although a long shot, quite a few have voiced their support for America’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Geopolitically, how will the new pope handle the growing number of Muslims around the world, especially considering Pope Benedict’s 2006 comments at Germany’s Regensburg University? “Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” the pope told German university students.
And then there are the women, who comprise half of all Catholics today. They feel their roles should not remain limited to secondary tasks within schools, hospitals and charity organizations. To this day, traditionalists frown upon many nuns who they feel are pushing a radical feminist agenda to further water down the church.
In response to this internal tug of war, on May 15, 2011, Monsignor Charles Pope issued a warning about dramatically changing the church too quickly.
“While accepting the benefits of multiculturalism, we must avoid the trap that everything is equally valid . . . multiculturalism is just another form of moral relativism,” he said.
Scandals Still Tarnish Modern Image of the Vatican
• From homosexual priests to high crimes in the financial sector, Rome still has its problems to deal with
By Victor Thorn
Amid the turmoil of transitioning to a new pope, the Vatican also faces several embarrassing scandals that never seem to go away. Out of nowhere in January 2012, an Italian reporter named Gianluigi Nuzzi became the recipient of some damning confidential documents that had been stolen by Pope Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele. Known as “Vatileaks,” these secret files exposed the church’s conflict-ridden innermost circle in the worst light possible.
Most embarrassing were suggestions of a “gay mafia” demanding hush money from high-ranking pedophile priests. On February 24, former Dominican Friar Mark Dowd confessed to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “Homosexuality is a ticking time bomb in the Catholic Church. . . . Gay men are massively over-represented within the church.”
Although many have criticized Benedict for not doing enough, he did terminate the services of international criminal and serial deviant Marcial Maciel, the driving force behind a secretive order known as the Legion of Christ.
Likewise plaguing Benedict’s successor are the remnants of another Vatican financial scandal. Dating back to its formation in 1942, the Vatican Bank has unceasingly been accused of laundering money for Mafiosi drug lords and handling kickbacks from corrupt politicians.
This culminated in the 1970s when “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, embroiled in controversy, wound up hanging—either via murder or suicide—from London’s Blackfriar’s Bridge.
Last year, the Vatican’s cooked books fell so short of acceptable accounting practices that Italy’s central bank stopped accepting any type of electronic payments. As a result, visitors to Vatican City were resigned to cash-only transactions.
Undoubtedly, the most explosive scandal involves Bishop Richard Williamson’s claim that the so-called holocaust has been greatly exaggerated. In November 2008 Williamson stated, “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”
To his credit, after Williamson had been excommunicated, Benedict reinstated him in 2009 and has since faced a barrage of criticism from Jewish groups and European governments for it.
Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and author of over 40 books.