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Caught off guard by Benedict

15 February 2013

Announced in The Times: the papal front page on Tuesday

Announced in The Times: the papal front page on Tuesday

IN THE line of papers laid out in The Guardian's offices on Tuesday morning, the front-page photos went Pope, Pope, Pope, Pope, bosom, Pope, Pope, Pope. The odd one out was that stronghold of decency the Daily Mail, which preferred to illustrate the question whether Helena Bonham Carter has the equipment to play Elizabeth Taylor.

About the news itself there was little to say, except that it was almost a complete novelty. The obvious stories, which all the papers managed in one form or another, were those looking back to previous resignations and looking forward to the next Pope - where, frankly, anyone's guess is as good as any other's. The bookmakers put out press releases - four in the past 24 hours to ensure that they got their names in the papers, and all, for obvious reasons, played up the candidacy of the Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson.

The wild thrashing around, both future and past, was wonderfully summed up in the last line of one of the Telegraph's stories: "Speculation on the next Pope was already in full swing in Rome today. Some say the papacy could return to an Italian for the first time since 1978, while others suggest it could go to a non-European for the first time since 731."

Divergence came with the leader columns and the assessments of Benedict's reign. Geoffrey Robertson QC wheeled out his outrage from the time of the papal visit in The Independent: "Yesterday's resignation by Pope Benedict was merely expedient - he has become too old to cope. It would have been both astonishing and courageous, a few years ago, had it been offered in atonement for the atrocity to which he had for 30 years turned a blind eye - the rape, buggery and molestation of tens of thousands of small boys in priestly care."

In The Times, Diarmaid MacCulloch was elegiac and much more informatively damning: "How disappointingly undistinguished Ratzinger's time has been, considering that he is probably the most talented theologian to have held the papal office since Gregory I in the sixth and seventh centuries. Perhaps in future, stellar theologians should be gently discouraged from taking the highest positions in the Church." Who else could he possibly be thinking of?

"Benedict undermined the good that he might have done through his hysterical reaction to the rapid changes in Western social mores. Witness the huge sums that the Catholic episcopate has spent, and the huge amount of noise that it has generated, in opposing same-sex marriage, all to no effect: each time some British or American bishop opened their mouths to rally the faithful, it converted hundreds more to the cause of social equality.

"Perhaps the greatest humiliation that the Vatican has experienced in recent months was the re-election of President Obama, when it was quite clear that most of the American episcopate were doing their best to boost the chances of the Republican Party."

THE mention of the Republican party is, of course, the cue for Damian Thompson's remarks in the Telegraph, which concluded: "This is no occasion to score cheap points, but traditionalists are unlikely to lose much sleep over the absence of a liberal English cardinal in the Sistine Chapel."

For the Financial Times, the answer was that the next Pope needed to be more like a businessman: "Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have ensured through their appointments a deeply conservative bias in the College of Cardinals. There will also be some who push for a candidate from the developing world. This would be historic.

"But geography should not be the deciding factor. The Catholic Church needs a pope with enough youthfulness and energy - in effect a tough chief executive - to shepherd 1.2bn faithful in a world that is changing with great speed."

In other words, this year's fashion in church leaders is a Welby, not a Williams.

The Guardian's leader quoted the late Cardinal Martini to brutal effect: "The thoroughness of the process that John Paul II initiated at the higher levels of the Church, coming close at times to a purge, will take years to modify, let alone reverse. This leaves the Church ill equipped to cope with the situation the liberal cardinal Carlo Maria Martini bleakly described in a last interview before his death last year.

"'The Church is tired in Europe and America. Our culture has aged, our churches are large, our religious houses are empty, and the bureaucracy of the Church climbs higher, our rituals and our clothes are pompous.'"

The paper was not hopeful. Martini was the last of his kind. "Liberal clergy have been isolated, shunted off to marginal jobs, or simply not advanced, leading to the situation today, in which not a single liberal candidate to succeed Benedict can be identified."

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