Has Rome Lost Faith in the Pope?

From the beginning of his papacy, Benedict XVI was never loved by the Italian faithful, but with the growing sex-abuse scandal, his hometown support is in peril. 

Holy Week is the most solemn period on the Vatican calendar, and Pope Benedict XVI had ample opportunity to show a good face to the public. Outside each of the pope’s public appearances in Rome, a handful of protesters—mostly alleged victims of priest abuse—gathered to protest the church’s coverups and legacy of silence. The pope, whose spokesman last week admitted to The New York Times that he had barely raised the sex-abuse issue with the pontiff, seemed not only oblivious but callous. On Good Friday, his personal priest, Raniero Cantalamessa, likened the criticism against the Catholic Church to anti-Semitism. (The Vatican later had to distance itself from the anti-Semitic remarks after Jewish leaders complained.) At Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano referred to the current crisis as idle chatter. “Holy Father, the people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers.”

Benedict XVI’s German heritage and his history as “the enforcer” of harsh church doctrine have never won favor with Italians who live directly under the shadow of the Vatican’s rule.

But with all of the mounting abuse scandals, even the Roman faithful seem to be turning on this pope, whom they never exactly liked in the first place. Italians, who often call this pope by his actual surname of Ratzinger rather than his papal name Benedict XVI, have little tolerance for this Holy Father. His German heritage and his history as "the enforcer" of harsh church doctrine have never won favor with Italians who live directly under the shadow of the Vatican's rule. On the contrary, John Paul II was loved in Rome. Even when he led the church during the height of the American sex-abuse scandal, which reached a peak in 2002 and 2003, it never reached the gates of St. Peter’s and it never degraded his image in Italy. John Paul II publicly apologized for the sins of his priests and called for greater attention to alleged victims. Benedict XVI did the same, but he cannot distance himself from the muck around him. Rome has little tolerance for him and everything he does seems to make it worse.

In many ways, this pope was doomed from the start. When white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel chimney on April 19, 2005, it had been 17 days since John Paul II died in what was an agonizing end to an astonishing papacy. His funeral was among the most well-attended unifying events of all time, bringing more world leaders together in one setting than at any time in modern history. John Paul II was bigger than life. He had survived communism and an attempt on his life, and he had guided the church through serious crises—including the American sex-abuse scandal that somehow failed to tarnish his legacy. The new pope had a big act to follow. As the church bells rang that late afternoon, St. Peter’s Square filled with nuns, priests, and Romans who ran through the streets to be in the square when the name of the new pope was announced. Groups of nuns from South America and Africa giggled as they huddled together, each hoping the new leader would represent their faithful countries. The optimism was contagious and the excitement was palpable by the time Father Jorge Medina Estevez of the College of Cardinals appeared at the balcony to announce, “Habemus Papam," or “we have a pope."

But when the name was read—Joseph Ratzinger—a hush fell over the square. The Italians looked at each other with astonishment, shaking their head at the idea of a German pope (after 26 years of Poland’s John Paul II, it was high time for an Italian pope again). And the nuns who had hoped for someone revolutionary—or at least someone who might address the growing issues of impoverished nations—simply left the square in obvious disappointment. Change wasn’t meant to be—at least for the moment—and the election of Ratzinger was widely seen as a compromise. Church insiders said that the electing cardinals had little choice. Cardinal Ratzinger was John Paul II’s closest adviser and he guaranteed continuity in church policy as it battled issues like gay marriage and the use of condoms to control AIDS in Africa. Ratzinger had also taken care of crucial church business during John Paul II’s long illness. He not only presided over his predecessor’s funeral, but he guided the transition during the period of mourning. He was, in essence, already an acting pope.

In selecting a successor to John Paul II, Ratzinger was not unlike Dick Cheney heading up the search committee to choose a VP for George W. Bush. When Ratzinger led the prayers as the conclave met, he gave his fellow cardinals stern words of advice as they retired to the quiet of the Sistine Chapel to vote. His words now seem hauntingly prophetic. He warned that the church was about to face some hard times. "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." Rome’s chief church insider and correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, says that Ratzinger has always been a “hero to some and a villain to others.” He predicted that Ratzinger was “likely to surprise and outrage, inspire and provoke sectors of opinion both within the Catholic Church and in the wider world.”

In selecting a successor to John Paul II, Ratzinger was not unlike Dick Cheney heading up the search committee to choose a VP for George W. Bush.

In addition to Benedict’s hardline policies, the growing priest sex scandal has turned even the hometown crowd against him and he is not likely to gain any popularity points any time soon. On April 17 and 18, the pope will travel to Malta where a growing number of alleged abuse victims are coming forward. And a trip to England and Scotland scheduled for September has been met with harsh criticism. Over 10,000 people have signed a petition against his state visit and civil lawyers there are questioning whether he should be immune from prosecution over what he may have known about sex-abuse cases.

Those close to the church vow he will not resign over this controversy, but it seems increasingly apparent that he will have to do something substantial soon or face increasing hostility.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.