Alongside many noble men of God, there have been plenty of truly terrible popes, as John Julius Norwich's history of the papacy, Absolute Monarchs, which often reads like a freaky hybrid of House of Cards and Game of Thrones, makes clear. There was Stephen VI, who exhumed the eight-month-old corpse of his predecessor, Formosus, and subjected the body, dressed in papal vestments and propped up on a throne, to a mock trial. (The corpse was found guilty and thrown into the Tiber.) Writing of the Church under Clement VI, elected in 1342, Petrarch described prostitutes "swarm[ing] on the papal beds," adding, "I will not speak of adultery, seduction, rape, incest; these are only the prelude to their orgies." Norwich quotes the writer Gerard Noel on Pope Innocent VIII, who "grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman." The loathsome, anti-Semitic Paul IV "took a special delight in the Inquisition" and managed to halve the Jewish population of Rome in five years. Pius XI described Mussolini as "a man sent by Providence."
Benedict XVI would certainly not merit inclusion in this rogues' gallery, but it's hard to imagine a worse choice to meet the particular challenges facing the Catholic Church over the past decade than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Prior to being named pope in 2005, Ratzinger had served the role as chief doctrinal enforcer for his predecessor, the beloved, but also quite reactionary John Paul II. In his fight against the liberalizing efforts of the Second Vatican Council, JPII, as he's known around the Vatican, cracked down on progressive Catholic groups like the Jesuits, while welcoming controversial hypertraditionalists Opus Dei into the Church's mainstream. Lay "numerary" members of the latter group take vows of celibacy and practice corporal mortification: whipping themselves or wearing a cilice, a spiked metal chain bound to the thigh as a penance and a reminder of Jesus' suffering.
A 1986 letter issued by Ratzinger, "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" (also known as Homosexualitatis Problema), described homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil." Leading proponents of liberation theology, an explosive, Marxist-tinged Catholic movement that swept through Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties, were marginalized by Ratzinger's office and seen as heretics. At the same time, his team responded to the endless pedophilia revelations that wracked the Church in recent decades with "denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction," to quote an exhaustive 2010 New York Times investigation.
After he became Pope Benedict in 2005, Ratzinger couldn't seem to catch a break, and he certainly lacked the ability to apply his widely acknowledged brilliance as an academic to snuffing out fires in the real world. In 2009, a massive money-laundering scandal was uncovered at the Vatican bank, which controls about $8.2 billion in assets. Then came the betrayal known as VatiLeaks, in which Benedict's own trusted butler stole reams of secret documents revealing embarrassing inner workings of the Holy See. The Italian press thrilled to the juiciest particulars, including allegations of a gay smear campaign, missing cash, attempted tax evasion (abetted by the Berlusconi administration), runaway spending (e.g., a $350,000 crèche) and suspicious gifts (e.g., the $100,000 worth of truffles offered to the pope by an Italian businessman).
Reportedly, the tipping point for Benedict came after a trio of cardinals charged with investigating VatiLeaks submitted their report, revealing a network of gay Vatican employees and outsiders making threats of exposure. "He just didn't have the personality or the strength to deal with everything that was happening," one Vatican insider tells me. Shortly after Benedict shocked the world last February by announcing he'd be the first pope to resign in more than 700 years, one final indignity followed him out the door: the disclosure in La Repubblica that Italy's largest gay bathhouse happened to be a tenant of a building owned by the Vatican.
Through it all, though, as church attendance in the United States and Europe continued to plummet, one group remained loyal to its pope: ultraconservative American Catholics. In particular, politicians. The religious right's pact with the GOP had initially been brokered by evangelicals like Pat Robertson, historically never huge fans of their spiritual brethren in Rome. (As recently as 2011, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod attempted to clarify accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry by explaining that his group "primarily views the office of the papacy as the Antichrist, not the individual popes themselves.") But the lines have blurred. Right-wing Catholics like Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush populate GOP presidential fields past and future, and Rick Santorum as well as Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas have been linked to Opus Dei.
Open dissent, of course, is a rare thing in an organization as hierarchical as the Catholic Church. But I figured if any group would express a distinct lack of enthusiasm about their new Jesuit pope, it would be Opus Dei, and so one afternoon, I met up with Father John Paul Wauck, an American Opus Dei priest who has been living in Rome for nearly 20 years, where he teaches literature at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Before taking his vows, he worked as a political speechwriter for William Barr, the attorney general under George H.W. Bush, and Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whom Wauck describes as "the last of the big pro-life Democrats." A trim, cheery 50-year-old who grew up in the same Chicago suburb as Hillary Clinton, Wauck displays a Midwestern eagerness to please as he leads me on a tour of Holy Cross. Up on the roof, which provides a panoramic view of Rome, he points out a villa where Galileo was imprisoned by the Church during his Inquisition for promoting the dangerous idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. Downstairs, we duck into an 18th-century chapel where, Wauck says, Mozart played as a boy. Wauck directs my eye to a painting of Aloysius Gonzaga, the great Jesuit saint. At Gonzaga's feet, a fat cherub holds a tiny spiked whip. "Corporal mortification used to be universal!" Wauck says. "Until fairly recently, pretty much all religious orders did it. Mother Teresa's nuns still do. It's not something unique to Opus Dei. We just didn't abandon it."
Wauck, who does not seem all that conservative for a member of Opus Dei – at one point, he asks excitedly if I've read Eminent Hipsters, the new memoir by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan – nonetheless downplays the pope's call for a truce in the culture wars. "I certainly have no problem at all with anything the pope says," he tells me. "I do think there has been a bit of selective reading. People are emphasizing certain things and forgetting other things that he also said." For instance, Wauck points out that the pope often speaks about the devil, "much more than I ever remember Benedict doing." Likewise, he notes that Francis' comments about the church's obsession with gay marriage and abortion did not propose any real doctrinal changes. "The pope never said those issues weren't important," Wauck says. "He said that when we talk about these things, we have to talk about them in a context. And who would disagree with that? So when people are trying to figure out what kind of guy is this, you have to hear all the bells, not just the ones that sound like, 'Oh, he's going to change everything.'"
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