Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 28 February 2013

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Eight years ago I was in Rome for The Spectator to write a piece about the election of a new pope after the death of John-Paul II. Within two days, and after only four ballots, some wispy white smoke emerged from the little chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel. The College of Cardinals had made its decision and chosen the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be the 265th occupant of the throne of St Peter. He was already 78 years old and said to be longing for speedy retirement from his taxing job as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest of the great Vatican departments (once popularly known as the Holy Office or the Inquisition). But when he appeared, beaming, on the balcony of St Peter’s basilica to acknowledge the cheers of the vast crowd gathered in the square below, he looked delighted to have been chosen for the much more demanding position of supreme pontiff.

It was, after all, his great chance to try to restore much-needed order and harmony to a Church in disarray. In his previous job, he had been confronted daily by depressing evidence of its fragmentation and demoralisation; and in a homily in St Peter’s just before the Conclave that elected him he had called for ‘a clear faith, based on the creed of the Church’ as opposed to ‘relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed or swept along by every wind of teaching’. This ‘relativism’, he said, ‘looks like the only attitude acceptable by today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.’

Pope Benedict’s misfortune was that he was constantly diverted in his crusade against doctrinal ‘relativism’ by having to deal with issues of sexual morality; and it seems likely that his pontificate will be best remembered for the exposure of child-abuse scandals in which thousands of Catholic priests had been involved. At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had been in charge of investigations of this ‘filth’ (as he later termed it), and he probably knew more about it than anybody else in the Church. On becoming Pope, he was no less zealous in his efforts to clean up the mess. He not only displayed true sympathy for the victims of abuse but also greater energy and openness than his predecessor in efforts to combat it.

In other areas, too, Benedict was up against a rising tide of relativism that he couldn’t control. The more, for example, he condemned gay marriage, the more governments, including Britain’s, embraced the idea. There seemed to be nothing he could do to slow the movement towards equal rights in every field for people whose sexual behaviour he regarded as sinful. And then, a few days before his resignation took effect (which happened to be on this, our publication day), an Italian newspaper linked it to the discovery of a network of gay priests within the Vatican itself. A report compiled by a group of cardinals at the Pope’s request was said to show that these priests were also being blackmailed by laymen outside the Vatican with whom they had links of a ‘worldly nature’.

Whether or not this is true, and, if so, whether or not it is in any way linked to his resignation, Benedict must be heartily sick of the subject of sex. I am, too, as a matter of fact. In Britain we are engulfed by a virtual tsunami of stories about sexual misbehaviour. There seems to be little in the newspapers that doesn’t concern Jimmy Savile and the BBC, Lord Rennard and the LibDems, and now, of course, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, whose resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh has been one of the Pope’s last decisions to accept. And one can only assume that further scandals are in the offing when it is reported in the Mail on Sunday that the computers of MPs and peers have been used 2,500 times to visit hardcore porn websites, and 3,500 times to visit ones offering information about gay cruising.

The allegations by priests (no less) of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ by Cardinal O’Brien must have been particularly distressing for the Pope, since he has had no closer ally than Scotland’s archbishop in opposing gay marriage and gay sex in general, which O’Brien has described as an ‘aberration’ and ‘demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved’. If the Pope ever had doubts about the wisdom of his decision to resign, they must now have vanished, and I wish him as much peace and quiet as he can get.