by Doctor Science
I keep seeing references to how surprised Catholics, including those at the Vatican, are by Pope Benedict's nigh-unprecedented abdication. I cannot figure out why anyone knowledgeable was surprised.
I am by no means a serious Vatican-watcher, but I knew that Benedict repeatedly said that he thought resignation should be an option for a Pope who's no longer up to the physical and mental rigors of the role. I never thought he was just blowing smoke about this, because I believe he was particularly aware of what my family calls "the Grand Vizier Problem".
You know how in stories, when the Emperor or other supreme ruler is getting old and maybe sick, the Grand Vizier is there to help the old guy out, take some of the burden of rulership off his weary shoulders, shield him from all those tedious decisions? Yeah. As Terry Pratchett says in Interesting Times:
Grand Viziers were always scheming megalomaniacs. It was probably in the job description: "Are you a devious, plotting, unreliable madman? Ah, good, then you can be my most trusted advisor."
Absolutely no-one in the world knows better than Benedict how this works for a Pope, because when John Paul II was failing he was the Grand Vizier. And I think that from the start of Benedict's papacy, one of his goals was to make sure no-one grand-viziers *him*.
My understanding of what went on matches this summary from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers:
Maciel was HUGELY popular in the Vatican during these years. There were stories of Pope John Paul II just handing him cash – not transferring money to the Legion of Christ, or even to Maciel’s bank account, but literally handing him legal tender. In some of these episodes, the transferred object is the more cartoonish sack of cash. So, clearly, Maciel had Vatican support and favor not just vocally but totally.Now, there's no question that Ratzinger was right to take action against Maciel, except insofar as it was too late. But there's also no question, at least in my mind, that in doing so he was going against what JPII had clearly wanted, and what that Pope would have done had he been healthy.
Fast forward. John Paul II has been ill and Ratzinger has been his steward. John Paul II takes a turn for the worse and will indeed end up dying within a few months. Four months before John Paul II dies, Ratzinger privately forces Maciel to step down as its head. Less than a week before John Paul II dies, Ratzinger has reopened the case against the Legions. Upon assuming office, Pope Benedict XVI makes a reference to a need to “clean the filth” from the church. Within a year, Maciel is suspended from all ministry.
This was classic Grand Vizier behavior: taking advantage of the supreme leader's age and incapacity to move against one of his favorites. The fact that Maciel deserved much worse doesn't obviate the principle: a Grand-Vizier-type will inevitably end up making decisions in his boss's name that the boss would never have agreed to. Benedict knows from personal experience that this is bad for the dying Pope (who will get praised and blamed for things he didn't do), bad for the Grand Vizier (who has responsibility without authority, and will get blamed for *everything*), and bad for the institution (which goes through a long period of unsettled authority, which might last *years* thanks to modern medicine).
So I am definitely not one of those people who says Benedict is abdicating because of this or that scandal or revelation. I took him at his word all along, that abdication was an option, and I agree with him that it's the mature, rational, caring thing to do -- perhaps the only time on record that I've agree with him about *anything*.
The idea that Vatican scandal, infighting, machinations, hypocrisy, gossip, or corruption might be important enough to prompt Benedict's precedent-setting abdication strikes me as hilarious. The Catholic Church hierarchy is the longest-running bureaucracy still in existence, of course it's full of factions and corruption -- and water is still wet, too. In fact, I suspect such human, scandalous behavior in the Vatican is currently at historic lows, because there are "merely" a billion followers and some trillions of dollars in assets at stake, not the rulership of entire countries and the armies that go with them.
ETA: For ongoing coverage of the Papal transition, my go-to source is John Allen at National Catholic Reporter, who is clear, fair, and knowledgeable, and is currently in Rome for the duration.
be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves-- but he was never really going for the "dove" side of the equation.
 It can be a verb! Or at least, it's communication, which totally counts.
 I don't know if there was enough cross-dynasty continuity in the ancient Egyptian or Chinese empires for them to count as single bureaucracies.