Pope Benedict XVI: a paradoxical pontiff

History may well be kinder to Joseph Ratzinger than his contemporary critics.

Retiring from office is probably the most radical thing that Joseph Alois Ratzinger has done since becoming Pope almost eight years ago. The tradition of popes dying in office is so well established that many people found it inconceivable that Benedict XVI would step down, even though he had in fact been dropping hints for years: for example, saying in a book published in 2010 that a pope might have to resign if he was "no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out his duties". The last pope to resign of his own volition, Celestine V at the end of the 13th century, spent his final months languishing in a dungeon after his successor started worrying he might want to stage a comeback. Ex-pope Benedict's retirement will, one hopes, be rather more peaceful.

True to form, he chose to drop his bombshell while speaking in Latin during a meeting of cardinals – rather than, say, on his recently opened Twitter account. He thus leaves the papacy, as he entered it, as a figure somewhat out of place in the modern world: a quiet, learned, intellectual defending a highly traditional interpretation of Catholic doctrine. His reputation as an arch-conservative was firmly established during his many years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department that once bore the less people-friendly name of Inquisition. As pope, he has re-introduced old forms of worship (and a few obscure items of papal regalia), has invited Anglican traditionalists over to Rome, has appointed hardliners to key positions and enforced discipline (for example, by cracking down on feminist American nuns). He has spoken out in harsh terms against moves towards same-sex marriage in several countries, including the UK. Over the past year, with the Pope's personal encouragement, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States has spearheaded a conservative charge against the Obama administration in the name of religious freedom.

At the same time, his papacy has been marked by a series of gaffes and scandals, during which he has at times appeared somewhat out-of-touch and ineffectual: scarcely characteristics one would expect of a man once dubbed "God's Rottweiller". There was the Regensburg speech of 2006, when his comments about Islam (actually, a quotation from a fifteenth century Byzantine emperor) sparked off riots in the Middle East. There was the matter of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier belonging to the breakaway Society of St Pius X, who was un-excommunicated just as he appeared on Swedish television claiming that "there were no gas chambers". There was the "Vatileaks" scandal last year, which culminated in the arrest and conviction of the Pope's butler for giving documents to a journalist.

Above all, of course, there was the continuing scandal of child abuse by clergy. Not only has the Vatican been slow to respond to shocking revelations in several countries, but the pope's own role as a bishop in Germany and as head of the CDF, charged with investigating paedophile priests, has repeatedly been called into question. During his visit to the UK in 2010 there was a slightly theatrical campaign led by Geoffrey Robertson QC, supported by Peter Tatchell and Richard Dawkins, to have him arrested. In recent years, formal apologies and meetings with carefully selected abuse victims have become a regular, almost ritual, feature of papal visits. But Benedict XVI has been unable to shake off the impression of a church too concerned with its own procedures and sense of its own sanctity to fully acknowledge its responsibility.

Unlike most popes, this one will be able to read (in a sense) his own obituaries; and they are likely to highlight these very themes. A pope is supposed to act as a focus of unity for Roman Catholics. Benedict XVI has been a rather divisive figure, inspiring passionate (and articulate) devotion, especially among grassroots traditionalist Catholics but ambivalence at best among Vatican bureaucrats as well as liberal clergy and theologians in Western countries. To outsiders, he has made an easy target, almost a caricature of a religious reactionary. Protests as well as prayers have accompanied him on his many overseas tours. But then he has never been someone to regard being popular as part of his job description.

History may well be kinder. Joseph Ratzinger is a serious thinker and a genuine intellectual – and, unlike many intellectuals, one who always expresses himself with perfect clarity. His encyclical Caritas in Veritate, for example, offers a far more profound and radical critique of the global economy than anything you'll get from most modern politicians. His three-volume biography of Jesus would be an important work of scholarship even if it had not been written by a serving pope. The Catholic Church continues to grow globally, though not in its traditional European heartland. His reign has been much more than the stop-gap many expected when he was elected at the advanced age of seventy-eight.

But he has never looked comfortable in the role to which God, or at any rate his fellow cardinals, called him. The other week, in a message marking World Communications Day, Benedict complained that "at times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner." He might have been talking about himself. Perhaps he was.

Pope Benedict XVI "never looked comfortable in the role to which God, or at any rate his fellow cardinals, called him". Photograph: Getty Images
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19 things wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about the women’s march

The crackpot and these women.

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

State of this:

I mean honestly, where do you even begin? Even by Daniel’s rarefied standards of idiocy, this is a stonker. How is it stupid? Let me count the ways.

1. “Our female head of government” implies the existence of “their female head of government”. Which is odd, because the tweet is clearly aimed at Hillary Clinton, who isn’t anybody’s head of government.

Way to kick someone when they’re down, Dan. What next? “So pleased that my daughter received a wide selection of Christmas presents, unlike those of certain families”?

2. I dunno, I’m no expert, but it’s just possible that there are reasons why so few women make it to the top of politics which don’t have anything to do with how marvellous Britain is.

3. Hillary Clinton was not “the last guy’s wife”. You can tell this, because she was not married to Barack Obama, whose wife is called Michelle. (Honestly, Daniel, I’m surprised you haven’t spotted the memes.)

4. She wasn’t married to the guy before him, come to that. Her husband stopped being president 16 years ago, since when she’s been elected to the Senate twice and served four years as Secretary of State.

5. I’m sure Hillary would love to have been able to run for president without reference to her husband – for the first few years of her marriage, indeed, she continued to call herself Hillary Rodham. But in 1980 Republican Frank White defeated Bill Clinton’s campaign to be re-elected as govenor of Arkansas, in part by mercilessly attacking the fact his wife still used her maiden name.

In the three decades since, Hillary has moved from Hillary Rodham, to Hillary Rodham Clinton, to Hillary Clinton. You can see this as a cynical response to conservative pressure, if you so wish – but let’s not pretend there was no pressure to subsume her political identity into that of her husband, eh? And let’s not forget that it came from your side of the fence, eh, Dan?

6. Also, let’s not forget that the woman you’re subtweeting is a hugely intelligent former senator and secretary of state, who Barack Obama described as the most qualified person ever to run for president. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be so patronising as to imply that the only qualification she had was her husband, now, would you?

7. I’d love to know what qualifications Dan thinks are sufficient to become US president, and whether he believes a real estate mogul with an inherited fortune and a reality TV show has them.

8. Hillary Clinton got nearly 3m more votes than Donald Trump, by the way.

9. More votes than any white man who has ever run for president, in fact.

10. Certainly a lot more votes than Theresa May, who has never faced a general election as prime minister and became leader of the government by default after the only other candidate left in the race dropped out. Under the rules of British politics this is as legitimate a way of becoming PM as any, of course, I’m just not sure how winning a Tory leadership contest by default means she “ran in her own right” in a way that Hillary Clinton did not.

11. Incidentally, here’s a video of Daniel Hannan demanding Gordon Brown call an early election in 2009 on the grounds that “parliament has lost the moral mandate to carry on”.

So perhaps expecting him to understand how the British constitution works is expecting too much.

12. Why the hell is Hannan sniping at Hillary Clinton, who is not US president, when the man who is the new US president has, in three days, come out against press freedom, basic mathematics and objective reality? Sorry, I’m not moving past that.

13. Notice the way the tweet says that our “head of government” got there on merit. That’s because our “head of state” got the job because her great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother happened to be a protestant in 1701 and her uncle wanted to marry a divorcee – all of which makes it a bit difficult to say that our head of government “ran in her own right”.  But hey, whatever makes you happy.

14. Is Daniel calling the US a banana republic? I mean, it’s a position I have some sympathy with in this particular week, but it’s an odd fit with the way he gets all hot and bothered whenever someone starts talking about the English-speaking peoples.

15. Incidentally, he stole this tweet from his 14-year-old daughter:

16. Who talks, oddly, like a 45-year-old man.

17. And didn’t even credit her! It’s exactly this sort of thing which stops women making it to the top rank of politics, Daniel.

18. He tweeted that at 6.40am the day after the march. Like, he spent the whole of Saturday trying to come up with a zinger, and then eventually woke up early on the Sunday unable to resist stealing a line from his teenage daughter. One of the great orators of our age, ladies and gentlemen.

19. He thinks he can tweet this stuff without people pointing and laughing at him.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.