Joseph Ratzinger never hid the fact he thought the Roman Catholic papacy was too big for one man.
For several days after being elected in 2005, Pope Benedict—as he chose to be called—spoke as if in shock. At his first public Mass, he asked: "I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this?"
At a meeting with fellow Germans the following day, Benedict surprised his well-wishers by likening the experience of being elected in the Sistine Chapel to getting dizzy as he watched a guillotine blade fall upon him.
Now that he has broken six centuries of tradition and resigned, the Catholic Church is asking whether, in an era of democracy, 24/7 television and Twitter, the papacy modeled on Renaissance-era monarchy is suffering the same fate. There have been sexual abuse scandals, disputes with Muslims and Jews, suspected money-laundering at the Vatican Bank and communications gaffes. Stacks of private files stolen by Benedict's own butler have documented corruption and in-fighting among senior officials.
Benedict hands over a 2,000-year-old institution whose reputation is tarnished, whose teaching is challenged by an increasingly secular world and whose priests struggle to minister to its growing population. The man who leads the world's largest church must be a spiritual guide for millions, an inspiration for the oppressed and the manager of a squabbling, dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy.
"No sane man seeks the burden of the papacy," says George Weigel, a prominent Catholic theologian in Washington D.C. "It is by definition impossible, because it asks a man to take up a burden of leadership that no human being can possibly attract by his own powers."
The challenge for the cardinals, due to enter the conclave next week, is to seize the chance to face up to the problems and identify reforms that help the next pope address them. The job of leading the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics around the world must be done by one man.
Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar and author of Inside the Vatican, puts it simply: "What they are looking for is Jesus Christ with an MBA."
What Went Wrong
To get to the root of the church's problems, some look back before Benedict's papacy to 1978, when, after a turbulent period, Pope John Paul mounted the throne of St. Peter to reassert orthodox Catholic doctrine and Vatican authority.
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger was doctrinal watchdog for a vigorous papacy which stifled discussion on questions such as the role of women in the church or issues concerning human sexuality.
That problem will be highlighted by one man's absence from the conclave. Last week, Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien joined the ranks of clergy exposed for sexual abuse over past decades when he stepped down as archbishop of Edinburgh. Younger priests had complained he had behaved inappropriately with them in the 1980s. He has since apologized for sexual conduct "below the standards expected of me."
Benedict dealt with sexual abuse cases in the final years of John Paul's papacy, and when he became pope, he started out boldly. He ordered Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the strict Legion of Christ order, and a favorite of his predecessor, to retire to a monastery in penance for his secret life as father of several children, sexual abuser of seminarians and drug user.
He apologized for the scandals and made private meetings with abuse victims a regular part of his visits abroad.
But the dirt kept surfacing. Four official reports into clerical child abuse in Ireland in as many years exposed details of priestly sin, and how the hierarchy covered it up. One clearly said the Vatican was complicit, leading to a once-unthinkable rebuke by Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Dublin's embassy to the Holy See was closed in late 2011 and relations remain strained.
Between December 2009 and April 2010, three Irish bishops resigned and apologized for mishandling abuse cases in their dioceses. Also in 2010, a German bishop quit and apologized for physically abusing children. A Belgian bishop stepped down after admitting having molested his own underage nephews. A Chilean bishop accused of abusing an altar boy quit in 2012, saying he had committed "an imprudent act," but the boy was not underage.
Such "zero tolerance" did not always apply to bishops who protected the predators in their dioceses. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles stayed in office for years, despite accusations—later proven true—that he shielded molesting clerics from the police. He has admitted to making "mistakes" and said he had been naïve about the impact of abuse. Bishop Robert Finn still leads the Kansas City diocese after being convicted of failing to alert authorities to a trove of child pornography found on a priest's computer. He apologized "for the hurt that these events have caused."
In these and other cases, the pattern was that the church acted only under pressure, and resisted calls to punish bishops who had mismanaged them. Catholics who see politicians shamed over sex scandals and executives fired for mismanagement asked why church decision-makers should not be held responsible.
"We long for the day when church officials announce that this cardinal or this bishop is being demoted because ... church officials want to clean things up," said David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
No centralized figures exist to gauge the impact of this abuse on church revenues, but in the United States, a study in 2006 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, showed Catholics became less generous towards their dioceses after 2002, the year the scandals broke.
In a sign they mistrusted their bishops, Catholics continued contributing overall, but gave more to their parishes or charities independent of their dioceses, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate.
From 2005-2011, the church has incurred more than $2.3 billion in costs related to settlements for abuse, CARA has said.
In Germany, some 180,000 people left the Catholic Church in 2010, a 40 percent jump over the previous year, after sexual abuse allegations exploded there that year. The rate fell back to 127,000—around the normal level of those leaving for financial or other reasons—the following year.
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