It’s been an eventful few weeks in Rome with two bolts of out of the blue and a puff of white smoke.This edition’s Watchman is written as two articles, penned while the unexpected circumstances  in the Vatican unfolded over late February and early March – the first written in the aftermath of the Papal resignation and the second in the first hours after the election of the surprising new Pope.

A Pope Emeritus

Like a bolt out of the blue, Benedict XVI becomes the first Pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to step  down, and the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1297. Not all may have been well with the health of the Pope Emeritus, but not all is well in the Papacy either.

To the victor go the spoils

It is often said of the Papacy that it is ‘the last absolute  Monarchy in Europe’, and of the Pope, that  he is ‘the last of the world’s absolute monarchs to  exert a truly medieval level of power’. The Papacy is the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest prize, as to a new Pope comes the rule of a worldwide church numbering over a billion. But his power is more  than spiritual. Since 1929 the Pope has also been sovereign head of state of the Vatican, a nation with  representation on world governance bodies and access to global power at the highest level. When the  reins of power are tugged, this monarch is without equal. No wonder the politics of the conclave of  cardinals – the ‘princes of the church’ – even in this  information-rich age, is a matter of the strictest  state secrecy.

Installed with life-long tenure upon the ‘throne  of Peter’, so much of the history of the Papacy is a  study in the circumstances and timing of the death  of popes. Over its many centuries only two popes have legitimately stepped down from power and no pope has ever simply ‘retired’ – that is, until now. To date, tradition determined that a pope would die  in office, and conventional wisdom held that the Papacy was too great a prize to simply hand over to  another. So what we have recently witnessed in the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is both stunning  in its magnitude and generally unprecedented in  its significance. The Pope cited his ill health as the major factor of his decision, but when we consider the context of his resignation, it is clear that not all is well in the Papacy either.

To whom does a pope offer his resignation?

On the 28th February the former Pope, Benedict  XVI ended his 8 year reign as the 265th pope,  stunning the world through his announcement of resignation on the 11th of February. In his statement to Catholics worldwide Benedict outlined his reasoning, citing his long deteriorating health  as a result of his advanced age. Yet notably he also qualified this, by setting the context of the physical and mental demands of the Papacy.

In his 11th February declaration he stated:

“… I have come to the certainty that my  strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited  to the exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

“In today’s world … in order to govern the  barque of Saint Peter … both strength of mind and  body are necessary.”

“… I have had to recognise my incapacity to  adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”


Advanced age in pontiffs, weakness and personal  inability form the history of the Papacy as  much as power and decisiveness. Observers need only go back to the reign of Pope John Paul II,  Benedict’s immediate predecessor, to have witnessed each of these elements in full measure;  and there may be an implied (if not intended) criticism of JPII by Benedict that those declining  years were a loss to the Church and are therefore  a mistake not to be repeated. But there seems to be more than just an ‘avoidance of another JPII’  in Benedict’s words. He speaks of the changes of the world, and the demands of the governance of the Church. He prefaces his statement about his failing strengths thus:

“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep faith …”

It seems for Benedict XVI the rapidity of change in this age, so much of which needs to be met with  a response from the Church, and the consequent deep impact of these things on faith, require carefully considered approaches and a consistently active  Papacy; one that doesn’t ‘waste time’ with the incapacities of old age.

Consider the vast array of problems that the new pope will face. His most public challenge in the developed world remains the ongoing child sexual abuse scandal. Yet the decline in numbers of believers is equally pressing. In the developing world the pressures are of a different kind, but no less in their complexity.

In 2005 the Church needed a leader equal to the task. It needed a Rottweiler.

‘God’s Rottweiler’

Christadelphians may have first heard of Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, as far back  as the 1990s, when he was dubbed by the media as  ‘God’s Rottweiler’. On the 19th April 2005 much of the media speculated on the expected form of his papacy. The Telegraph then stated:

“… the choice of the 78-year-old Bavarian was  possibly the most contentious the Cardinals could  have made”

(source:  worldnews/europe/italy/1488264/Gods-rottweileris-  the-new-Pope.html)

On coming to Rome in 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger  was named as Prefect of the ‘Sacred Congregation  for the Doctrine and Faith’, a body once historically  known as the ‘Roman Inquisition’. It was here he earned this epithet. A conservative man at the  head of a powerful conservative body, he earned a reputation as a defender of Church teaching and as an enforcer of its orthodoxy. He took action against  individual theologians and whole movements alike, and for many progressive Catholics, Ratzinger was  an over-active and intolerable force for calling Catholic dissidents worldwide to Rome’s heel.

As Prefect, Ratzinger was also responsible for  the investigation of allegations of the sexual abuse  of minors. It is often stated in his defence that he was not able to act as he might have liked under  Pope John Paul II who preferred to respond in low level ways.

The Rottweiler was expected to ‘bite down’ as  Pope and take a firm controlling grasp on the Papal reins. Yet there is a very real sense that the expectations for a decisive and active ‘Rottweiler’ Papacy  were lost over the reign of an essentially ‘introverted’  man, a reign that has been widely criticised as ‘indolent’ or likened to a ‘CEO bowing out because the stock value has fallen so low’.

Australia’s highest ranking Cardinal Pell bemoaned both the retirement of the Pope and his Pontificate, in terms rather too loudly for Rome, when he described Benedict as:

a “brilliant teacher”… but noted that “… government wasn’t his strongest point.”

The Pope himself added to this sense of personal failings in his management in comments made after the resignation announcement.

May– Scott Stevens, online ABC Editor of Religion and Ethics, said in an ABC TV interview that  “he has been a great proposer of ideas, but not an imposer of them.”

(Source:  of-the-papacy/4546396)

Moreover Pell said:

“The new Pope has got to know his Theology, but I think that I prefer somebody who can lead the church and pull it together a bit”.

Vatican dysfunction?

In late February the Vatican criticised a plethora  of news stories that appeared, initially in Italian  and then world newspapers, outlining rumours  about conspiracies, secret reports and lobbies in the Vatican which they claimed had pushed the Emeritus Pope to abdicate. The ABC, in summarising these reports stated that, if true, they

“paint an unflattering picture of the Vatican’s central administration … as being full of prelates more concerned with their careers than serving the Church or pope”

(  vatican-criticises-media-over-damaging-stories/  4536226)

True or not, in any event something is clearly not right in the Curia, the government/public service  that runs the Vatican. The Vatileaks scandal of  2012 in which the Pope’s own butler leaked stolen  personal Papal documents to the media, was swiftly jailed for the crime then equally swiftly pardoned,  alleged “corruption in the Vatican and infighting over the running of its bank”.

(source:  24/vatican-criticises-media-over-damaging-stories/  4536226)

The New York Times put it thus:

“The elderly German Pope was not in full control of either his household or the complex and powerful institution he was heading” and “when it  came to the major challenges facing the church in a  real world, Benedict often appeared to carom from one crisis to the next”

(Source:  europe/for-benedict-clear-teachings-and-manycrises.  html)

The power of a precedent

Cardinal Pell’s most ominous statement about the resignation came in an interview to Australia’s Seven Network where he expressed his belief that the precedent of retirement could weaken the very position of Pope. He went on to say,

“People who, for example, might disagree with a future Pope will mount a campaign to get him  to resign”.

(Source:  aspx?aeid=35140)

For Benedict, Pell and, one might now assume,  any future pope, this precedent represents a core  change to the tradition and conventions that have  governed the considerations made in appointing a  pope: the tenure of a pontiff and the skill-set required  to successfully undertake the role. If these considerations  become effected by expectations of future retirement, then we may well have witnessed a shift  in the practice of the Papacy that will have ramifications into the future, none the least of which may be a whole new layer of politics in Rome. Consider these implications. If popes resign, then younger popes may be elected and be expected to limit their reign by resignation. External pressure to resign may be placed on a pope. Handover agreements  and deals may occur. A pope may be dethroned. Or alternatively none of the above may occur.

A perspective from another Roman past

In late antiquity, as the Roman world transitioned painfully toward the Medieval, the Roman Empire was faced by a series of intractable civil wars and internal strife. Unable to govern itself and unable to govern its times, it drifted very near to the brink of self-destruction. Critically one emperor rose to  the fore with the intent of bringing this age to an end. He proposed a new way to manage the complexity of governing such an enormous and ‘differently needy’ empire in order to bring certainty to its government at the very moment of its greatest  weakness – when a ‘handover’ from one emperor to  another occurs. In effect he proposed that emperors retire and so avoid the prolonged paralysis of the empire while these things took their usual course or ended up in civil war.

Diocletian is best remembered to Christians  for his persecution of the Church, the last great  violence inflicted upon believers of that age. Yet in history Diocletian is remembered as an innovator and reformer who sought to bring a catastrophic  age of civil strife to an end. He created a Tetrarchy or ‘rule of four’, famously dividing the Empire into manageable sections and appointing a co-emperor with agreed heirs apparent to ensure that power always made a smooth transition. It required one thing – respect for the arrangement.

Far from being ultimately successful the precedent, if anything, weakened the actual power of the emperor and in time created tremendous opportunity for someone ambitious. This was soon seen in the spectacular rise and rule of Constantine the Great, whose strength was only amplified in the face of an institution admitting weaknesses.

The Man of Sin

The attention given to the resignation of Benedict  XVI has focused the world on the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, though a complex entity  which the Emeritus Pope failed to properly dominate, is in fact a throne that offers more power to its head than almost any other human institution.  The failings of a man to properly exercise that power  may well be bemoaned, but the failings of a man that fully utilises that power will be catastrophic.

The Man of Sin and Antichrist, the ultimate head of the Roman Catholic Church in the days of its end, will without doubt be such a man. Extraordinary religious power harnessed to the European Beast, allied to the power that invades Israel will stand in full opposition to the revealed Christ and his Saints. Yet he and his city will meet  their end along with their church in the catastrophe  that awaits Rome: “and then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit  of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his  coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,  And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved”(2 _ ess 2: 8–10)

A new pope

Habemus Papam. ‘We have a Pope’. the first non- European Pope in more than 1,200 years since Syrian born Gregory III in the eighth century, the first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit Pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi, Bergoglio is considered a Vatican outsider, coming as he does from “the ends of the world”.

From the ends of the world

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, said in his first address to a gathering of 100,000 believers gathered in the Vatican,

“You know that the duty of the conclave was  to give a bishop to Rome. It seems my brother cardinals went to the ends of the world to get him.  But here we are”

Religious commentator Clifford Longley, the  lead writer for the Vatican journal The Tablet, told  the ABC’s World Today program that this new  Pope will “shake up” a Vatican which has been mired in scandal under his predecessor Benedict  XVI. He said:

The Cardinals “don’t want to upset some areas of  teaching, but they do want the church to be shaken  up and they want it to have a new image, an image  of poverty, an image of not being European, not being bound by bureaucracy, of being freer, much  more humane”.

(Source:  03-14/new-pope-a-man-of-the-people-commentator/  4571926)

What’s in a name?

Longley sees the choice of this Jesuit’s name as  signficant. Bergoglio has lived a life substantially  without the trappings of office and like Francis of Assisi views poverty and unpretentiousness as a virtue to be followed, a dire threat at this stage to the entrenched interests and excesses of the Vatican  Curia. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he is variously reported as having refused to live in the  Archbishop’s Palace, rather taking up residence in an apartment; in fact he is even reported as having sold the Palace. He commuted by bus to work and is reported to have shunned his recent Vatican Security detail telling Cardinal Dolan, “I’ll just go  with the guys on the Bus”. This is a Pope who begins his reign with a reputation for the humble, who has taken his name from the 13th century Italian reformer and ‘patron saint’ of animals, who lived in poverty.

CNN Vatican expert John Allen described  Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as,

“the most stunning name choice” and “precedent  shattering.”

(Vatican analyst: Pope Francis name “stunning” by  Michael Martinez, March 14, 2013 CNN news App)

The article went on to describe the importance  of the name in the Church. The name symbolises  poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the  Catholic Church. Allen said, “the new Pope is  sending a signal that this will not be business as usual.” He has a history of outspokenness and clashing with the Argentine government over  humanitarian and spiritual matters.

However, born in 1936, the son of Italian immigrants, at age 76, just two years younger than  Benedict XVI at his election, the former Cardinal is not a young Pope. Where Ratzinger was a  teacher who exercised power as a Cardinal, but failed to meet the testing challenges of power as  Pope, Bergoglio is credited as a communicator and  reformer whose ability to master the venomous infighting and tensions that have poisoned the Curia, and greater ability to master the reigns of  the Church globally, will now be tested.

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