Pope Benedict XVI hands over "keys to heaven"

The scandal-plagued pope does the unthinkable. And it's the best choice he's ever made for the Church

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 11, 2013 6:59PM (EST)

     (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
(Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

When your job is defined as "person who holds the keys to heaven, keys passed down to you directly from Jesus himself," that's not the sort of thing a man usually walks away from. But on Monday, Pope Benedict made the stunning announcement that he's giving the world's roughly 1.2 billion Catholics his two weeks' notice, and stepping down at the end of the month, presumably to move to Boca and work on his golf swing.

The papacy, much like the mob, is not a job one generally can just up and quit. The former Joseph Alois Ratzinger is going old school, doing something that hasn't been done since Gregory XII in 1415.

Benedict's bombshell leaves a host of as-yet-unanswered questions. As James Poniewozik asked on Monday, will the first pontiff on Twitter have to give up his handle, or will his successor have to be "like RealPontifex53"? Does he get to keep his brand-new Mercedes-Benz popemobile? Is he going to show up just to "hang out" at the Vatican at awkward times, like the guy from high school who just can't detach? But the biggest question is a simple one: Why a man would bail on a job he and his colleagues believe the Holy Spirit wanted him to have. 

There are already, in these early moments after the announcement, the inevitable conspiracy theories floating about that there must be a scandal of epic proportions about to blow up. More than any other modern papacy, Benedict's has been marked by a continuous onslaught of controversy. Just days ago, 12,000 pages of court records emerged regarding sexual abuse by Catholic priests – and the calculated efforts of Church authorities to cover it up. Last month, bishops in Germany abruptly pulled an independent investigation into sex abuse there. In recent months, as sweeping reforms for LGBT men and women around the world have ushered in a new era of tolerance and civil rights, the Church has doubled down on its stance against "all forms of weakening" traditional man-lady relationships. Did we mention the money-laundering scandals? And throughout it all, the one man at the top of the chain of command has yet to emerge as anything less than competent at best and downright duplicitous at worst.

His career beginnings were inauspicious. The German-born leader of the Catholic Church grew up under the Third Reich, and like all boys of his era, was compelled to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager. (Though it's still up to history to judge whether his predecessor Pope John Paul II's record as a Church leader, the former Karol Wojtyla's dramatic experience as a young Pole during a dozen years of Nazi occupation -- including hiding from the Gestapo -- were considerably different from Benedict's.) As a priest, Church documents have revealed Ratzinger as a man more concerned that defrocking clerics accused of sexually abusing children "could provoke some scandal among the faithful" than advocating strongly for justice for victims. And just last year, a scandal involving leaked confidential Vatican documents portrayed the pope as a "lonely" man, plagued with trouble "keeping the shop together or getting information owing to all the filtering and intrigues surrounding him."

Any of the unpleasant messes that have marked his papacy might be reason for an ordinary man to walk away – or be gently nudged -- from his post. But being a former Hitler Youth who helped cover sex abuse has rarely kept anybody out of a job in the Catholic Church. Instead, in the convoluted world of Catholicism, this may well prove to be one of the rare moments that Occam's razor applies. Benedict's predecessor was a fragile old man suffering from Parkinson's disease when he died in 2005 at age 84. Benedict, one of the oldest popes ever elected, is 85. And while the papacy isn't exactly a young man's game, the idea that it's meant to be a position for life may now need to be reconsidered.

In the eight years since that billow of white smoke announced a new man filling the seat once held by St. Peter, the world has changed dramatically. It's unlikely that any but the most devout will look back on Benedict as a man who led Catholics into a new era. He lacked the charisma and the globalism of John Paul II, or the sweeping vision for reform of John XXIII. He has been, instead, from the beginning, an old man in a big hat, a man who inherited a scandal-packed institution but who rarely showed a glimmer of the confidence to boldly face it and change it. His departure signals for many Catholics the hope of something -- of someone -- better, a leader with a fresh viewpoint and a history that doesn't consistently point to standing by idly when speaking out was called for. In his statement, Benedict hinted at some self-awareness on this subject, as he referred to a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance." In the end, Benedict's most innovative act as pope is this, his last one. And the best thing he could do for his flock is to leave it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Catholicism Hitler Youth News Pope Benedict Xvi Pope John Paul Ii Sex Abuse Vatican