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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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation