Pope Benedict XVI’s abrupt announcement that he would be stepping down Feb. 28 was the latest controversy in the soon-to-be former pope’s tenure. A hard-line conservative, Benedict has been criticized for his social policies, which some find to be archaic. There have also been reports indicating that he was complicit in reporting cases of sexual abuse by priests.
Before he was named pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had access to thousands of documents detailing cases of sexual abuse. Ratzinger oversaw the transfer of sex offenders to new jobs rather than their immediate termination. In doing so he enabled the continued abuse of children within the church. While he did go after some of the perpetrators, he failed to follow up in any meaningful way once he assumed the papacy.
In his eight-year tenure as pope, Benedict never instituted a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse. Benedict had extensive, detailed knowledge of the scourge from his previous position. Given this awareness, his inaction is inexcusable.
Benedict has also alienated many with his stance on contraception. In a 2009 visit to the Republic of Cameroon, the pope, referring to the AIDS crisis, said, “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” Of course, lack of access to contraception continues to be a major problem facing countries in Africa and is linked to inflated rates of HIV and AIDS.
The pope’s refusal to accept LGBTQ persons as equal has also been a sticking point among his critics. As recently as January, the pope wrote that same-sex marriage was a threat to the fabric of society. His stances on contraception and the LGBTQ population represent a larger reluctance to move the church forward.
For many Catholics, adhering to these outdated policies is undesirable. By not changing along with the times, Benedict, along with previous popes, risks turning the position of pope into nothing more than a figurehead. The disparity between the official positions of the Vatican and those of everyday Catholics continues to widen. The Vatican, given its reach and influence, can be a powerful agent of change if it chooses to be. If not, it will be irrelevant at best and at worst it will contribute to continued ignorance.
Whoever is chosen to succeed Benedict should show a willingness to reconcile the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church with changing societal attitudes. Chapters of the church have already begun to do so. NETWORK is a Roman Catholic social justice lobby based in Washington, D.C. that works on a number of progressive causes including universal healthcare, food security and civil rights. The Vatican would be doing itself a favor by taking a similar direction. The next pope must reflect this direction, as the most recent pope sure has not.