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It’s very easy to make fun of the Pope. Maybe too easy. The Pontiff-bashing started in earnest (if it ever really stopped) on Monday morning with the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down from the Papacy at the end of February, citing his advanced age and declining health. It’s unbelievably tempting to join in with the piss-taking, but if I did, you know that not even a single iota of it would be original.
He looks like the Emperor from Star Wars; he wears fabulous red shoes (not, contrary to popular belief made by Prada, but fabulous nonetheless); he was a member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager in Nazi Germany. Yawn. It’s all true but you’ve heard it all before. And, let’s be honest – it’s pretty superficial stuff, and it distracts us from the real reasons why nobody should be shedding any tears over Benedict’s resignation.
Before his election to the position of the Bishop of Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was affectionately nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler”, thanks to his aggressively conservative stance on many Church issues like birth control and homosexuality. When he became Pope Benedict XVI, he remained an obstinately outspoken bigot, railing against anything which he believed threatened the teachings of the Catholic Church, surprising literally nobody. Things he doesn’t like include (but are certainly not limited to): gay marriage, the Harry Potter books, the trans* community, a woman’s right to choose, contraception; Buddhist converts, female ordination and rock and roll music.
And then there’s the Catholic child abuse scandal. It’s clearly something which has been going on since long before Benedict was in office, but his response to this continuing saga of abuse has not been as robust as it should have been. To be frank, the Vatican’s response under Pope Benedict’s direction has merely been to use the crisis to further their attacks against the LGBT community. Official Vatican documents have implicitly stated that homosexuality is tied to the sexual abuse of children. When the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was quoted in 2010 as saying “there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia”, their response was to clarify but not to distance themselves from his statement. In fairness, new guidelines were published in 2011 to instruct senior clergy on how to deal with abusive priests – but these were guidelines only, not Church law. They give bishops exclusive authority on dealing with abuse cases – reporting these crimes to the police is not even made mandatory. It’s wholly inadequate as a proposed solution to dealing with these horrific events, and hardly serves to remove the perception that the Catholic Church would prefer to conceal abuse than to end it.
There are more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that not all of them follow the current Pope’s ultra-conservative way of thinking. It’s even harder to remember that some of them also identify as LGBT. The LGBT Catholic organization Equally Blessed responded to Monday’s news by expressing their profound hopes that the next Pope will move the Church forward into the 21st Century;
“With the Pope’s impending resignation, the church has an opportunity to turn away from his oppressive policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, and their families and friends, and develop a new understanding of the ways in which God is at work in the lives of faithful and loving people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Guardian’s Sam Jones has written down the five most-pressing issues which the next Vicar of Christ will have to address, and which have been left profoundly untouched and unresolved at the end of Benedict’s term as Pontiff. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done, and if we can learn anything from this Pope, it’s that conservative authoritarianism very rarely rings in the changes.
Pope Benedict was determined to preserve the doctrines and dogma of Catholicism in the face of a rapidly-changing modern world – but at the cost of damning the Church as an increasingly anachronistic institution completely out of touch with huge swathes of society, both within the faith and without. Maybe it’s time for a change. I may not myself be religious but I understand its importance to many people, and I believe that for religion to survive it has to change and it has to evolve. The Vatican persecuted Galileo for teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but scientific understanding has come a long way since then, and they have had to concede that they were wrong. It’s clear to many that they have been wrong about more than just that.
So by all means, call him “Pope Palpatine”, or dismiss him as an old man in a gold dress with an imaginary friend. Go right ahead. But don’t forget that Benedict’s legacy will also include the advancement of an intensely homophobic, misogynistic theology which isn’t necessarily representative of the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics – and maybe that’s what we should be talking about instead.