Vacancy in the Vatican

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI leads the mass for Ash Wednesday on February 13 at St Peter's Basilica. Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP

THE announcement on February 11 from the Vatican that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of the month was unexpected. It is for the first time in more than 600 years that a Pope has chosen to demit the papal throne. The last Pope to step down was Pope Gregory in 1415. He had chosen to do so to avoid a split in the Catholic Church. The present Pope has only cited health reasons for his decision to step down. While announcing his decision to a meeting of Cardinals in Rome, the 85-year-old Pope said that being the leader of the billion-strong Catholic Church needs “both strength of mind and body”. The Vatican has since announced that the Pope had recently got the pacemaker for his heart replaced. The Vatican, in a statement, clarified that the Pope’s decision to resign “was not due to ill health but the inevitable frailty that comes with aging”.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was 78 years old when he was chosen to head the Vatican after the death of his mentor, Pope John Paul II in 2005, making him the oldest Pope to assume the office in more than 300 years.

Pope Benedict said that his decision to quit was of “great importance for the life of the Church”. The Catholic Church in recent years has been embroiled in major controversies. In May 2012, the Pope’s personal butler, Paulo Gabriele, was arrested for stealing a document implicating top Vatican officials in financial irregularities. The Vatican has also been accused of money-laundering activities in the Italian media. In 2010, Italian prosecutors had taken custody of €23 million belonging to the Vatican on suspicion of money laundering.

The Pope’s younger brother, George Ratzinger, told the media in Germany that matters other than health problems might have played a role in the unfolding Vatican drama. He mentioned the financial irregularities and the machinations of the ultra-conservative groups within the Church as possible motives for his brother’s sudden decision to quit. Pope Benedict himself was not particularly known for his liberal views. He clamped down on those bishops advocating “liberation theology” in Latin America and other parts of the world.

It was also during Benedict’s tenure that the Church was rocked by more “child sex abuse” revelations involving the clergy and the systematic cover-up of this crime by the Vatican hierarchy. Hundreds of millions of dollars had to be given as compensation for victims of sex abuse, creating a financial crisis for the Vatican Bank. Benedict as Pope and before that as Cardinal was uncompromising in his views on celibacy of priests, ordaining of woman priests, papal infallibility and also on the questions of homosexuality and abortion.

John Cherian

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