Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Not since 1415 when Gregory XII resigned to heal the so-called “Western Schism” has a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church abdicated his post as the successor to St. Peter. Now, Benedict the XVI has issued his renuntiatio citing failing health as the reason for the move. Rumors have swirled since publication in the Italian newspaper, Repubblica, (here) that the Pope resigned to diffuse a burgeoning crisis in the Curia over allegations of a gay cabal of Vatican prelates being blackmailed by male prostitutes. The Vatican flatly denies that allegation and no one has come forward to challenge that denial. Fueling the rumors are the inconvenient resignation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien over allegations of sexual abuse of three seminarians. O’Brien has flatly rejected those charges too, but resigned the following day saying his decision was based “on health grounds,” and that his hospitalization for cellulitis and gout at the end of 2012 was proof thereof. That’s eerily similar to Benedict’s demurrer and, coupled with several recent scandals (here) involving Vatican priests procuring gay prostitutes, have left some observers skeptical, indeed.
A Little Church History
But the truth may have more to do with Gregory XII than Rome’s gay escorts. The 15th Century pontiff was the center of a political crisis that even Hollywood couldn’t dream up. Elected Pope in 1406 by a conclave of only 15 cardinals, Gregory was made to promise that he would resign if Antipope Benedict XIII, would likewise agree to resign ending an existing schism in the church’s leadership. The schism was based on the elevation of seven French cardinals to the throne of St. Peter during a 70 year period in the 14th Century, thus supplanting the power of Italian-born cardinals from whose ranks all popes were previously chosen except St. Peter himself. This Avignon Papacy, named for the French palace where the non-Italians sat in residence, threatened to move the center of the catholic world westward away from Rome. The Italians may have had good reason to worry as the French prelates came more and more under the influence of the French crown. Denigrating the French coup as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy,” the Italians were determined to do something about it. The Italians persuaded Gregory XI (a predecessor of Gregory XII) to return his papacy to Rome, much to the dismay of his fellow Frenchmen. Not taking the matter lightly, officials at Avignon elected their own popes, the last of whom was Benedict XIII.
When neither Gregory XII nor Benedict XIII opted to fulfill their end of the resignation bargain, the Church was thrown into even more crisis with political maneuvering by each’s red- robed supporters resulting in palace intrigue worthy of the Medicis (whose own candidate would arrive later), and growing concern from the secular world whose stability was threatened by instability in the Church. To stop the blood-letting, Gregory ordered his 15 cardinal constituency into house arrest with strict orders not to talk to Benedict’s gang. They refused, some escaped, and negotiations went full-bore to depose both pontiffs by the edict of the Council of Pisa. Both popes ignored the convocation and after a conclave-packing scheme failed miserably, the good cardinals at Pisa did manage to elect yet another pope, Alexander V. Alexander V would die shortly thereafter only to be succeeded by the Medici-backed pope, John XXIII. The schism finally ended at the Council of Constance when the Three-Popes Controversy came to an inglorious halt under political pressure from King Sigismund of Hungary, who understood that the schism threatened him and the throne of the Holy Roman Empire where Sigismund’s father, Charles IV, ruled the roost. Tiring of the Council’s stagnation caused by votes purely along lines of nationality, Sigismund decided to go over the heads of the parochial cardinals and pressure the three popes individually. Sigismund had all the powers of persuasion that you would expect of the son of a man who issued the ancient world’s political bible for empire building known as the Golden Bull. Over time, Sigismund compelled the three leaders to resign, with Gregory XII leading the way at the Council by his proxies. The cardinals accepted the resignations and the matter was finally resolved.
What Goes Around
German-born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger ascended to the papacy in 2005 and took the title, Benedict XVI. To the Italian cardinals who make up the largest bloc of Vatican power, Benedict XVI might well have been Antipope Benedict XIII. Seen as a reward for Ratzinger’s work in the famous or infamous Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (you may know it by its more famous name, the Roman Inquisition), his elevation was not welcomed by all in the Holy See. Some saw it as a public relations nightmare given the Pope’s scandalous memo ordering priests to refrain from reporting child sexual abuse allegations to civil authorities. The attitude was further reinforced when Benedict began installing German prelates in key Vatican positions because, as some have surmised, Benedict did not trust the entrenched power of the Italian-dominated Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia. This point was made doubly clear with the appointment of two Germans, Ernst Von Freyberg, to be the new head of the Vatican Bank, and Georg Gänswein as Archbishop of the Papal Household. Both are key positions of power and influence at the Vatican. Italian cardinals voiced opposition in each appointment but were ignored. They even opposed one of their own, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the powerful Vatican Secretary of State – a close ally of the Pope’s.
The result is a Curia as split today as it was in 15th century and facing some of the greatest challenges in church history. The child sexual abuse scandal shows no signs of waning as allegations of church-sponsored harassment of victims came out last week from an alleged victim in Australia (here) . The church is under increasing pressure in Muslim countries to maintain itself as its brand of fundamentalism is being violently challenged by another. Churches in Africa and South America, where the religion continues to grow even as its loses members in America and Europe, are increasingly clamoring for more control over their congregations and more power in Rome. Some have even suggested an African or South American papal candidate.
Against this backdrop, Benedict, who clearly is in declining physical health — but not declining mental health as some have suggested — made his decision. The power struggle within the church has taken its toll, and the 85-year-old prelate seems unwilling to battle forces both internal and external. It’s a Herculean task for even a younger man and his opponents have a 600 year head start in mastering Vatican intrigue. Benedict alluded to the power struggle in his last Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. In that homily, the Pope urged the church to put aside “individualism and rivalry.” Many wonder if that platitude was meant more for the red-clad folks behind the altar rail than those in front of it. For their part, the Italian cardinals are determined to install one of their own to stop the public relations hemorrhaging wrought by the sexual abuse scandals and to keep the hard-fought and centuries old tradition of Rome-centered power intact.
Source: LIGNET and throughout.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger