Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile Pier Paolo Cito/AP
It's been five years since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope. But the mood at the Vatican is not festive.
Pope Benedict XVI is at the center of a mounting scandal over pedophile priests, leading to what the weekly National Catholic Reporter calls "the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history."
The scandal could have an impact on the pope's legacy.
When elected pope, Benedict was not an outsider. He had spent nearly a quarter of a century as the Vatican's top enforcer of doctrine.
Sandro Magister — a widely read Vatican analyst — explains what Benedict sees as the focus of his papacy: "His priority is to bring God back into the lives of men and bring humanity back on the road to God. And he does this through his sermons, his encyclicals and his books about Jesus. Words are the essence of this papacy."
Benedict is more bookish theologian than administrator — his style is remote and he's surrounded by a few loyal aides.
"He is very much almost obsessed with secrecy, with keeping things out of the public eye; he doesn't like the fact that the dramas of the church or debates in theology are played out in the public press," says Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet.
Benedict is not a good communicator. Some of his words have offended Muslims, Jews and Anglicans. His rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop even angered some European government officials.
"This is a papacy of permanent crisis," says veteran Vatican correspondent Marco Politi. "There was the crisis with the Islamic world; there are repeated crises with the Jews all over the world; there was the crisis with public opinion about condom and aids. He lacks the temper, the style, as a leader always in the contact with public opinion. This is the failure of this papacy."
Swiss theologian Hans Kung has known the pope since they were young advisers at the second Vatican council in the 1960s that opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world.
"I still hope this can be repaired if he would make an act of courageous reform," he says.
A longtime critic of his former colleague, Kung has written an open letter to the world's bishops with a long list of what he calls Benedict's missed opportunities.
"He finally and especially missed the opportunity to make the spirit of Vatican II the compass for the whole church, including the Vatican itself, and thus promote the needed reforms of the Catholic Church," he adds.
Kung urges bishops to push for reforms — even disobeying the pope if necessary.
The theologian blames Benedict for fostering an authoritarian system he says is endangering the church. Kung claims the Vatican cover-up of clerical sex abuse cases was "engineered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger."
"With good reason," Kung says, "many people today have expected a personal mea culpa of former prefect and current pope, and instead he passed up opportunity."
"Without a doubt, cases of sex abuse by some priests are being used directly to attack Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church," says analyst Magister. "The battle that is being waged by the international media is not against pedophilia; rather, it is a battle against the Catholic Church."
When he was elected pope, Benedict stressed the need for a Christian revival in an increasingly secularized Europe.
But recent clerical sex abuse revelations in Ireland, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands and elsewhere seem to have further widened the gap between European Catholics and their church.
The president of the Association of Young German Catholics, Dirk Taenzler, said recently, "There's no such thing as a generation Benedict."
Young people," he added, "have a different idea of how to live their lives."