Since Joseph Ratzinger announced he would retire, the Catholic opinions have been flying. Everyone who has an opinion about his resignation agrees that Ratzinger's decision constitutes a dramatic break from tradition. Conventionally devout Roman Catholics are satisfied with the old age/pacemaker/Mexican fall/infirmity explanation, but this resignation flies in the face of a strong church tradition whereby a pontiff endures infirmity and old age without abandoning the call to serve as "the Holy Father."
Conventionally devout Catholics insist that such events as the recent "bust" of Cardinal Roger Mahony and the Vatican financial scandals have nothing to do with Ratzinger's decision to retire, but the don't-let-the-Apostolic-Palace-door-hit-you-in-the-papal-rear-end set think otherwise.
Ratzinger's apologists believe Ratzinger should be taken at his word, but it is difficult to take a man who has been so disgracefully dishonest in the context of the Vatican sex abuse scandal at his word. Blogosphere chatter now suggests that Ratzinger has sought some kind of prosecutorial immunity in the wake of his decision to resign. This has the ring of truth, but it's not a truth anyone can prove. No one can prove anything because there's no transparency.
Ironically enough (at least for those of us who do believe Ratzinger's resignation is a defensive response to the sex abuse scandal) it is this utter lack of accountability and the secrecy which made the abuse of multitudes of innocent children, and the resulting coverup, for which Ratzinger was in great measure responsible, possible.
There is no transparency. The pope is accountable to no one. No one outside the Vatican can really know why the pope resigned. It's all conjecture.
I read something a few days ago by a writer who was critical of all the educated guessing about the soon to be former pope's motives and circumstances. He insisted that he had a bit of an inside line to the Vatican because he "knows someone close to the pope." I'm sure he does know someone close to the pope. Most people who care enough about the pope to write about the pope know someone who knows the pope. Most Catholics can, if they seek such a thing, manage two or three degrees of separation from the pope, but such proximity is unlikely to yield the full truth of what the man in the scarlet shoes intends, especially if those shoes are stomping out fires.
No one but Joseph Ratzinger and his closest colleagues knows what the pope's true reasons for stepping aside are. (I write "aside" and not "down" because I think the Pope Emeritus will be influencing heavily from the sidelines.) My hunch is that Ratzinger is stepping aside because he has become a liability. He is ultimately responsible for the thousands of incidences of rape and sexual abuse perpetrated against children by priests which came to light via the John Jay College and Cloyne Reports; his best shot at damage control is a "humble" and well-spun departure. If there is anything genuinely humble in this decision, it would be Ratzinger's willingness to remove a corrupt leader from a church he still loves.
But I don't believe Ratzinger will leave entirely. If you have visited the Vatican, you know how small Vatican City is. Both Ratzinger's temporary home and the convent being refurbished for his occupancy are within walking distance of St. Peter's Basilica. Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi was right when he said the following:
"It is a wise solution for Benedict to stay in Vatican City, where he can pray, study and have personal contacts," he said. "The successor and the cardinals will be happy to have very nearby someone who knows well what the spiritual needs of the church."
The truth is that although the Vatican is not very large, it is a sovereign nation. If Ratzinger leaves, I believe, he could find himself arrested. A Vatican official who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity explained the need for Joseph Ratzinger to remain in the Vatican: "Pope Benedict's decision to live in the Vatican after he resigns will provide him with security and privacy. It will also offer legal protection from any attempt to prosecute him in connection with sexual abuse cases around the world, Church sources and legal experts say."
The the Vatican has informed the public that Ratzinger will remain close to the Vatican, while Ratzinger himself has announced an intention to disappear into the shadows. Which is it? Will Ratzinger remain "nearby" to consult on the "spiritual needs of the church?" Or will he live a contemplative life? The model for Roman Catholic contemplative living has traditionally called for the contemplative to absent him or herself from worldly concerns.
Although Cardinal Roger Mahony will have a vote in the conclave, Reuters reports that Joseph Ratzinger will not: "The Vatican has already said that he will not influence the election of his successor, which will take place in a secret conclave to start between March 15 and 20 in the Sistine Chapel."
If you believe that I have a bridge across the River Tevere to sell you.
I think reframing Ratzinger as a humble contemplative who so loves his church that he is willing to give up its most powerful position is a preposterous reach.
I believe and hope and pray that the International Criminal Court will eventually consent to try the Vatican for the systematic abuse of children. I don't think history will be kind to Joseph Ratzinger. I believe Benedict XVI will go down in church history as a "bad pope," and as a kind of Abraham who carried his Isaac up the hill ten thousand times, failing to listen when God called out "Stop!"
I believe the Vatican has hit the mattresses. I think the Godfather is taking the fall. Maybe Ratzinger is falling on his sword. Maybe there's some honor in that.
All we outside Vatican who cherish our church have to go by are hunches, beliefs, speculation, conjecture and opinions. We can examine the Ratzinger's legacy and theorize, but no one can know why he resigned.
The only people who know what goes on in the Vatican are the people who know what goes on at the Vatican.
The pope is the pope, accountable to no one. Not even God.