With Joseph Ratzinger gone, Pope Francis may be eyeing retirement
With Pope Benedict XVI gone, Pope Francis may be eyeing retirement

Those of us who are non-believers might like to think that the death of a 95-year-old former pope is not an event of great concern. But the demise of Joseph Ratzinger on New Year’s Eve will shape the future of the Catholic Church – and, through the far-reaching influence of the Vatican and the religion’s roughly 1.3bn believers, the world.

The flow of obituaries tended to call Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, a “controversial” figure, due to his uncompromising conservatism and his past as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department once known as the Inquisition. But his “Nazi past” was sometimes overplayed. Membership of the Hitler Youth was a requirement for boys in rural Germany.

The most damning aspect of his past was the way he dealt (or didn’t deal) with the wave of evidence of sexual abuse that came to light under his watch. Throughout his short papacy, he came under fire for failing to act on allegations and knowingly covering up information. Added to this, only a year before his death, he admitted providing false information to a German inquiry into clerical sexual abuse while he was the Archbishop of Munich.

Now, with his death, the Catholic Church is entering a new era. Ratzinger’s sudden decision to step down as pope in 2013 led to an unprecedented situation. In the intervening decade, his successor Pope Francis has had to deal with a living former pope continuing to exert his influence. The 2019 bromance movie The Two Popes might have tempted us to believe in a fractious but deep friendship between the two: the Argentinian man of the people and the stiff, traditional German. But the fact is that opponents of Pope Francis rallied around the “alternative pope”. Francis may have not turned out to be as radical as some proclaimed, but his apparently softer approach on issues like homosexuality, and his attempts to reform the Catholic Church’s power structures, have made him many enemies.

So Ratzinger’s passing might seem like good news for anyone wanting to see the Vatican reformed – or at least minimising the damage it does to the world around it. However, this may not be what transpires. There are mutterings that Pope Francis wants to retire himself, and was only waiting for Ratzinger’s death to do so. (Nobody wants three living popes.) His passing, then, may only hasten the twilight of the Francis age. And while Francis has championed the poor and vulnerable migrants, and supported the fight against climate change, he has not managed to get his own house in order.

Francis, unlike his predecessor, acknowledged the Church’s responsibility for clerical abuse. But his attempts to deal with corruption in the priesthood and the hierarchy which allowed it to continue have largely failed. The new structures of “accountability” he introduced failed to open the institution up to outside eyes. No public disclosure was required, bishops investigated fellow bishops, and the Vatican determined the punishments. If the pope who drove a Fiat and washed the feet of Muslim refugees can’t do it, who will?

The failure bodes badly for the future. The Catholic Church does not only influence people’s beliefs. It also runs schools and hospitals, and is in a position to support – or harm – many vulnerable and needy people around the world. While Christianity is declining in the west, it is on the rise in the global south, with a particular increase in the number of Catholic priests in Africa and Asia.

With the former pope’s death, and the current pope eyeing retirement, the intrigue in Vatican City will already be warming up for election day. Whether the clerics opt for a traditionalist or a reformer is – unfortunately – a decision that will be felt across the world. And while the removal of Ratzinger’s conservative influence can only be a good thing, Francis’s papacy appears to show that even “radical popes” can only go so far.

This piece is a preview from our New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.