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Leaving office early

We know of Roman Catholicism as persecuted and persecuting. But the religion has settled down. Now there's also a pontiff who resigns power through awesome humility. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Feb 15, 2013 01:36 IST

Pope Benedict XVI, assessed within and without the Catholic Church as an arch conservative, has taken the most radical step, unprecedented since the year 1415, by resigning the papacy. In that year, almost 600 years ago, Pope Gregory XII renounced the papacy amidst a hurricane of European political intrigue. No such political intrigue besets the resignation of Benedict XVI. On the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, he announced that he was standing down because he felt that at the age of 85 with failing physical strength, energy and stamina, he could not fulfil the role required of a head of the Catholic Church and would fail its 1.3 billion adherents as the Vicar of Christ.

Nothing becomes Benedict's office as his leaving of it. From within the Catholic Church the voices of criticism are raised. He was too conservative in his doctrines. His approach to homosexuality, to gay marriage, which was being legitimised by several western states, and to the ordination of women which the Protestant churches had partially adopted was orthodox and out of step with the modern world. He failed to put forward any strategy to combat the severely falling numbers in the worldwide communion. Most telling of all, he was attacked from within and without the Church for not addressing vigorously the issue of paedophile priests who had sexually abused children by taking advantage of their ecumenical position.

The debate about this last accusation still rages, even within the Catholic communion. Some accuse Pope Benedict of turning a blind eye to widespread allegations of child abuse by the clergy when he was a cardinal and the Vatican's appointed official guardian from 1981 of the ethical behaviour of the clergy. His accusers say he excused provenly deviant priests on the grounds of age, infirmity and the long lapse of time since the offence. His supporters point to the fact that he has taken strong action on the issue since becoming Pope.

At the end of February, Benedict XVI will revert to being Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany. A Catholic friend sees his resignation as a setback for the faith and the Church and anticipates devils emerging from the deep to fabricate fanciful and damaging allegations for his resignation. I tell her I disagree. As a deeply sceptical cultural, non-ritualistic Zoroastrian, I see Benedict's resignation of the papacy, considered with his proffered rationale, as strengthening the Catholic Church.

After Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, Christianity, was and remains the only other to have a nominated and anointed hierarchical priesthood. Judaism has the learned guides, the Rabbis, Sunni Islam has mullahs with no anointed status, Shia Islam retains the remnant of the Zoroastrian Dastur class as Ayatollahs and the atheistic religions such as Buddhism and the various forms of polytheistic Hinduism have monks, ascetics, teachers, preachers and impostors, but no single hierarchical structure of clergy. Catholicism and its offshoots, the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches, all have hierarchical priestly structures.

The Church of Rome was founded by Jesus Christ when he anointed the fisherman Simon and called him the rock on which the faith was to be built for the salvation of humankind.

Jesus didn't specify the structuring of a clergy, but obviously to preach and sustain the word of Christ through the world, Peter the Rock and his apostolic successors had to institute a spreading network which became the Church. In succeeding years, through centuries of secrecy and persecution, the word of Christ became the religion of the Roman state and the structures of the Catholic Church itself assumed the status of a State with cardinals who would elect the apostolic successor to Simon called Peter.

The most recent of these is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger who has through his resignation demonstrated for our sceptical times that the papacy is not a throne, but a grave responsibility. If he, in his own conscience, cannot fulfil the work of God entrusted to Peter by the son of God, then let an election by cardinals, an analogous body to Jesus' apostles, appoint another.

No other religion in the world today has the means to boast such a humble and at the same time grand gesture. Even calling it a 'gesture' is an impertinence. It is an affirmation by a man of faith of the sacrifice that faith teaches.

The world knows that Roman Catholicism has been a persecuted and also a cruelly persecuting religion. Witness the fate of the unerring scientists Giordano Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo. It has been responsible for crusades, witch-burnings, iniquitous inquisitions and, in my humble judgement, un-Christ-like persecution.

But it has settled down. It has no 'fundamentalists' because it sees itself as fundamental. It has no jihadists, no terrorist training camps, no official crooks or conmen founding cults and making money, no badly managed rituals in which people are crushed to death. Yes there are Catholic organisations like the Opus Dei which some would say interfere in secular affairs and there are rituals and beliefs that sceptical atheistic Zoroastrians would scoff at.

But, with enhanced respect, there is also a pontiff who resigns power through awesome humility.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal