Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are discussing the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
Margaret: Ramesh, as Pope Benedict XVI took off this afternoon from the Vatican, I thought of Richard Nixon, another leader who resigned and left the seat of power by helicopter. Like Pope Benedict, Nixon was involved in a cover-up. Unlike the pope, he paid a price.
Benedict's sendoff is without recriminations. His abdication is being covered almost as if it were a canonization. We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead.
In one of his final acts, dressed in his red and gold robe lined with ermine -- conspicuous consumption is apparently not a concern in Rome -- Benedict met with the cardinals who will elect his successor. He told them that they should harmonize like a good orchestra in their deliberations, which suggests he hopes that they elect another conservative. He said he would "be close to you in prayer," and he'll also be close in proximity: When he returns from Castel Gandolfo, he will be living in an apartment in the Vatican with a view of St. Peter's. He will continue to be called "Your Holiness."
Since no pope has abdicated in 600 years, this post-papacy situation is being played out by divine ear. I'm not saying Benedict negotiated his own retirement package, but it all reminds me of the headline-making deal given to Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric Co., who got everything but his own nuclear weapon when he retired.
It will be interesting to see what it is like to have two popes residing in the Vatican at the same time. Imagine if Bill Clinton had rights to hover ever so close to the new president from a perch in the Lincoln Bedroom. When someone said "Mr. President" in the White House, two heads would turn.
Even as the laudatory coverage continues, fallout from the cover-up that's hard for a lot of Catholics to forgive marred Benedict's last days. There were questions about the propriety of cardinals implicated in the child-abuse scandal being given the privilege of choosing the next pope. Benedict also met with cardinals investigating various scandals in which confidential documents were leaked. A Vatican spokesman said that some wiretaps were authorized to trace the leaks.
Which gets me back to Nixon: As they say, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up. I'm just hoping the new pope is someone who sees his mission as cleaning up the church's grievous mistakes. It doesn't take divine inspiration to know this is what need to be done.
To end on a positive note, instead of the silken red slippers and fur-lined robe, Benedict will be wearing a simple white cassock and drab brown shoes from now on. A little humility along with his prayers. I take your point, Ramesh, about what the pope does best is pray. We can never have enough of that.
Ramesh: The Nixon comparison is a real stretch, Margaret. You aren’t going to find His Holiness Benedict XVI in “a good Republican cloth coat,” after all.
The church cherishes tradition, and our disagreement about Benedict’s role in dealing with the clerical abuse scandals is starting to become one. To recap: Starting about 10 years ago, the Vatican began to receive reports of decades-old cases of sexual abuse and cover-ups, and people at the highest levels of the church were much too slow to understand how widespread these problems had been and respond accordingly. Pope John Paul II, I have often been told, found it hard to believe that so many priests could act so abhorrently.
Benedict responded more quickly and forcefully than most. It is fair to say that even he has not done enough. Popes treat cardinals and archbishops as brothers rather than as subordinates to be sacked and commanded. But Benedict, like his predecessor, could have stood to administer some firmer fraternal correction to the likes of Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles. What is not at all fair to say, I think, is that Benedict has engaged in a cover-up himself.
Nor do I think it is right to see the pope as a “conservative.” He is, it is true, conservative on issues of sexual ethics, affirming the historic teachings of Christianity. On questions of war and peace, however, he can sound as “liberal” as John Paul did; and he seems more skeptical of free markets than his predecessor. In urging the cardinals to act in harmony, like an orchestra, Benedict wasn’t sending a coded political message. He was echoing John 17:21, as popes often have: The disciples of the church are to seek unity in Christ.
I suspect that Benedict’s enduring legacy will not be as a “conservative” and will not have much to do with his record on the abuse cases, as important as they are. He will be remembered, rather, as a teacher of the faith, and he will be remembered fondly.
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