I should probably start by disclosing that I am a Roman Catholic, born and raised in the Church, and was even for two years a Dominican friar. Like many European Catholics, I had placed hopes in the Vatican II Council: In 1968, when the encyclical Humanae Vitae was published, making contraception a mortal sin, I no longer could agree with the papal moral infallible teaching on matters of science and sexual morality.
It does not make the Catholic Church irrelevant, especially in developing countries. Its defense of the poor and equality are eminently laudable and respected. It might actually be the best defense we might have against some of the most extreme Islamic teachings and terrorism.
Cardinal Ratzinger Wanted To Be Pope
Professor Ratzinger is an exceptional theologian. Born and raised in Bavaria, he could not be expected to be a liberal. Pope John Paul was charismatic, but he probably was the only person on earth who could be applauded by young Catholics while teaching an even more conservative message than his predecessors.
He had made sure that the college of Cardinals who elect the pope, and will soon do the same, was populated with conservatives. The two popes had constant conflicts with the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Eastern Europe.
He managed to be elected before the Conclave even met, and a few months before the age limit for Cardinals, buying himself an extension rather than respecting the intention to make sure that young Cardinals accede the supremacy of Papacy.
A Dysfunctioning Roman Curia
Benoit XVI was running the most conservative institution of the Curia Romana, in charge of the integrity of the faith. It is the Commission of the Vatican that exiles theologians and ostracized those who do not follow the code.
As a theologian, he had little sympathy or empathy for suffering people. He did nothing to neutralize pedophile clergymen. He had no intention to change the access to priesthood to married men or -- even worse -- women.
The Curia has been the center of epic battles on just about any subjects with a few courageous Cardinals desperately and courageously attempting to listen to the local hierarchy, let alone the Christian people.
He wanted to be pope, convinced that unless he was elected, the Catholic Church would turn to liberal measures such as those decided 40 years ago by Vatican II. And he succeeded.
Could His Resignation Be Machiavellian?
Before answering the question, I want to be clear that it is quite possible that Benoit XVI is seriously ill and needed to retire. The lack of transparency of the Vatican on his health does not give us any ground to accept or reject that hypothesis. If it is the case, the answer to my question is that this is not a Machiavellian decision.
However, it is difficult to believe that this man, who is so infatuated with his own intellect and apt at maneuvering the Vatican system, would not have decided to resign to take control of the next Conclave.
When the Cardinals elect the pope, even if they are officially aligned with the predecessor, he is dead and there is very little he can do if the Holy Spirit inspires a change of direction to some Cardinals, as it happened when Jean XXIII was elected. The simple knowledge that the Benoit XVI is still alive, and will, inevitably, manage to know what is happening inside the Sistine Chapel is sufficient to influence the course of events.
Furthermore once a Pope is elected the fact tat his predecessor is still alive is a cloud that might lead His Holiness to take measures that will please the Pontificus Honorificus. It s also for that reason that the ailing Pope Jean Paul VI remained in the Holy Sea of Saint Peter until his death.
Yes indeed, Benoit XVI could have executed the most Machiavellian maneuver inf the last 600 years of the history of the papacy. The way he got the pontificate illustrates that he is perfectly capable to have engineered a maneuver to ensure that the Catholic Church remains an entrenched conservative institution. It would marginalize it even more.