Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Benedict’s Resignation: The Prisoner of the Vatican Thesis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 25, 2013

Yesterday my extended family celebrated the ninth birthday of one of my granddaughters. In the course of some wonderful family conversation, one of my children quietly asked me if I thought there was anything to the speculation that Pope Benedict was resigning either because he was so often stymied in his plans by incompetent staff or because he couldn’t figure out a way to deal with various powerful and unscrupulous factions among the cardinals.

I note also that significant authorities on Church affairs (our own Phil Lawler and George Weigel, for example) have alluded to how badly served Benedict has often been by his own subordinates (Lawler) and how great the need is for the next pope to undertake a thorough reform of the curia (Weigel). Moreover, the rumors that the Vatileaks report contains evidence of a homosexual faction which operates through blackmail have left the secular press awash in renewed speculation that Pope Benedict’s hands have been tied throughout his pontificate.

The first thing to remember about all this is that sound Catholic commentators like Lawler and Weigel mean one thing when they refer to difficulties in the Curia, while the secular press—which does not understand the Pope’s relationship to his cardinals at all—means quite another. The secular press continuously conceives of the Church as a multi-national corporation in which the Pope is the chief executive officer and the cardinals are a kind of board of directors. The press cannot conceive of a chief executive stepping down unless he was forced into it by the powerful figures who surround him. The Church, and papal authority in particular, is something completely outside their experience.

Catholic commentators, on the contrary, have no difficulty when they observe the incompetence of various Vatican officials, or even the failure of some cardinals (in Rome and elsewhere) to follow the Pope’s lead. They can recognize these things without for a moment supposing that the Pope’s hands are tied, or that the Pope has been squeezed into some box from which he cannot escape. Similarly, the fact that popes seldom “defrock” cardinals and bishops is just more evidence for the secular press that they have somehow got the pope under their thumb, whereas to an authentically Catholic commentator, there is no such connection to be made.

For this reason, when real experts like Lawler and Weigel talk about problems with the Curia, or even factions in the Curia, they are talking about problems or factions that always exist to some degree through the humanity of the Curia. They may well advocate that such problems be addressed when bad enough to significantly reduce the effectiveness of papal administration, but they also know that the Pope is not impeded in his ability to relieve any of his officials of their particular duties or to appoint others in their place.

A different analogy, while also imperfect, might help—the analogy of a president and his cabinet. While bishops and cardinals have the same core status and function in the Church regardless of who the pope is (unlike cabinet members in a presidential administration), bishops and cardinals are completely subject to the jurisdictional decisions of the pope in terms of their specific duties. In that sense, to imagine that one or more cardinals can “make” the Pope do what they want is very much like imagining the same thing of, say, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Defense working against the wishes of the President of the United States.

Just as it is all but unimaginable that any president would be unable to “get away with” dismissing the members of his cabinet, it is unimaginable that any pope would be unable to “get away with” dismissing the members of his curia. Just as nobody would question the legitimacy and finality of President Obama’s decision to dismiss his Secretary of State or his Secretary of Education, so too would nobody in the Church question the legitimacy and finality of Pope Benedict’s decision to dismiss, say, his Secretary of State, or his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now of course the sum total of problems facing a particular pope might be more than he has the strength and ability to handle effectively, just as the sum total of problems facing an American President could be. Pope Paul VI complained on his ninth anniversary that he had been able to do little for the Church but suffer. He simply did not know how to begin to address effectively the deep secularization of the Church overall. Humanly speaking, the task seemed quite beyond him. Yet even Paul VI was not any sort of prisoner within the Vatican. Even Paul VI could shuffle his cabinet; he could dispense with any Vatican official he wished to remove, without question. And he sometimes did.

It is also possible, I suppose, to imagine that a weak-willed, cowardly or confused pope could come under the excessive influence of strong-willed factions within the Curia. But of course there is no indication whatsoever that Pope Benedict XVI is the kind of man who is weak-willed, cowardly or confused (just as there was never any indication that his predecessor John Paul II was weak or cowardly or confused). Again, it is possible to imagine that a pope who was guilty of serious sin could, owing to fear for his reputation, be subjected to a kind of blackmail. But this is scarcely more than barely imaginable, for what great sins can presidents or popes commit that do not become, almost instantly, common knowledge?

In Oz, things are never what they seem. But the Church is not Oz, and Jesus Christ alone is behind the veil. Things really are pretty much as they seem, both for good and ill, to those who actually do understand the Church. And so the error of secular commentators is not their desire to see more deeply into the Church, but rather their refusal to understand the Church at all. Truly it is as Our Lord said: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see’, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:41).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: seewig - Mar. 03, 2013 10:03 PM ET USA

    Above all we must not cede to the culture of the secular world, which as Pope Benedict himself recognized, has an enormous influence. Not the least through a maybe homosexual culture within, but mainly dissident strain of clergy and bishops. Benedict has done a lot to replace bishops, who will be at least as, if not more important than the cardinals. We are very happy to see that in liberal California, we have more of the loyal and traditional bishops now.

  • Posted by: eileen1636 - Feb. 26, 2013 5:42 PM ET USA

    what a fortunate bunch of offspring you have, who will fill in the gaps and straighten out the curves! consider yourself , in this world, blessed!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 26, 2013 12:04 PM ET USA

    I read about John Paul's dialogue with Paul VI before he was consedrated Pope and it was very clear that he felt the staff of the Vatican by their tendency of domination and control contrubuted to Paul VI's death. John Paul made it clear that that was not what was going to happen to him.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 26, 2013 10:06 AM ET USA

    I think one mistake that commentators make when referring to problems in the "curia" is to focus on the Cardinals. Instead, I think most of the difficulties stem from the Italian lay employees and the career priests - both Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy graduates and diocesan priests who end up staying forever. It is this "civil service" that is virtually impossible to dismiss and I would argue, the root of most of the problems.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 26, 2013 8:56 AM ET USA

    Indeed, I take these scandals in stride, knowing that this is the cost of the incarnational reality that is the Church: she will always suffer via her weak human part. But part of the surprise in some quarters at these scandals may come from the fact that in the last century we have had a string of extraordinarily holy Popes. Compare the present papacy to that of around 1000 AD, when popes gained the Chair of Peter by graft and murder.