He did not go quietly. Pope Benedict’s final words as Pope may turn out to have been his most significant, effectively confirming 10 days of rumours that all was not well in the Vatican, and that the first Papal resignation in 600 years was a direct result of the infighting, rivalry and factionalism at the heart of the Catholic church.
It is worth quoting the most explosive part of his speech in full:
There were moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy. I felt like St Peter and the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord gave us many days of light winds when the fish were abundant, but also times when the waters were stormy and the winds were against us...and the Lord seemed to be sleeping.
In the context of a farewell speech in front of most of the Cardinals who will be electing his successor, this was strong stuff. Benedict wants them, and the world, to know about the seriousness of the problems in the Vatican, and of the need for a younger, stronger man, capable of tackling them.
Was he effectively forced out of office? Probably not. Much more likely is that he feared that in his declining years he would become too weak to stand up to the Curia, the group of Cardinals who run the Catholic church from within the walls of the Vatican. His resignation was his way of defying them, of saying ‘I’m not going to be your figurehead, to be manipulated at your pleasure. I shall do the only thing left in my power and do the one thing you never expected: make way for someone younger who you will find much harder to control’.
This is not just speculation, but was confirmed to me this morning - off the record - by a Vatican official, a German, who has worked closely with the former Joseph Ratzinger for many years. His view, though he would not say if Pope Benedict shared it, is that the conclave should take their time about electing a successor, making sure they thoroughly debate what has gone wrong and agree on someone capable of cleaning house.
The scandals he mentioned are numerous. Obviously getting a grip of the abuse of children by priests is number one, but almost as important are the reports of corruption and bribery at the heart of the Vatican bank, the ‘Istituto delle Opere Religiose’. The papers leaked to the press by the Pope’s butler, in a scandal that became known as ‘Vatileaks’, revealed a battle royal between papal officials over transparency and the adoption on international banking norms to fight money laundering.
Essentially those who favour openness are pitted against those who fear how much it will cost the Vatican financially to come clean. Benedict was not able to resolve that dispute. In a final act of defiance, in the days between announcing his resignation and leaving office, he has appointed one of his fellow countrymen, the splendidly named Ernst von Freyberg-Eisenberb-Allmendingen, to run the Vatican bank. A member of the Knights of Malta, he is Benedict’s man, but ultimately it will be for Benedict’s successor to decide if he will be allowed to make a difference.
All of which could make the conclave to elect the next Pope a very interesting moment in Papal history, and makes it much more likely that the man chosen will be an Italian. The Curia is dominated by Italian cardinals. For all the romantic notions of a third world Pope, a black Pope, a Latin American Pope, can they afford to elect someone else who is unable to control the Curia? After the explosive nature of Pope Benedict’s departure, probably not.