Benedict and Vatican Culture

Pope Benedict’s abrupt resignation casts a disquieting light on an earlier bulletin. On December 3, 2012, the Vatican announced that the pope would begin posting on Twitter. Beginning December 13, he could be followed with the handle @pontifex.

The New York Times accompanied announcement of Twitter’s new convert with a photo that caught a fleeting, impromptu moment in an otherwise staged event. Credited to L’ Osservatore Romano and taken some time during the previous year, it shows Benedict at his desk leaning over an iPad, a device he is clearly unfamiliar with. His right hand is being carefully guided by one unidentified cardinal as two others watch. It is a telling gesture.

Pope Benedict and Twitter

At first sight, it made me uncomfortable. The optics were wrong. Now, after reading Canadian journalist David Warren’s trenchant and cautionary comment on the resignation, the photo vexes me even more. Those hands. They do not denote a pope anxious to embrace the Twitterverse, as Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi insists. Is a hand in such need of guidance likely to be one that reached for an iPad on its own initiative? The pope appears almost as a prop in a production not of his own making.

On whose behalf was this pseudo-event orchestrated? For the benefit of . . . what? Warren’s essay must be read in full. It places Benedict’s decision to surrender office within—and against—the intellectual climate of the Vatican, specifically its internal cultural politics.

The Vatican bureaucracy has been, in recent times, & perhaps inevitably, infiltrated by the very “progressive” forces it exists to fight. The Pope must be entirely on his toes in such an environment. A man of extraordinary humility but also astute, Benedict would be aware of the danger that members of this bureaucracy would exploit his mental & physical decline.

Bureaucracies acquire a life of their own. Self-serving, internally impelled, they grow and spread through the sheer force of inertia. Secular or ecclesiastical, it is in their nature to resist shifts in direction It takes an agile pope with deep reserves of stamina to alter a bureaucratic course or stay its momentum.

Reading between the lines, we are left to wonder if Benedict resigned in order to circumvent being used as a pawn of ambitious berrettas with agendas he had not the energy to deflect.

(To be continued)