A poisoned chalice awaits the new leader of a Catholic Church bedevilled by 'turbulent waters'

THE great baroque builder Bernini produced many masterpieces in Rome, but none exceeds the twin colonnades that sweep from St Peter's Basilica around most of St Peter's Square, designed to be a pair of great arms in a gesture of embrace to the world. Today, half of one of the arms has an ugly grey cover protecting restoration work, making it look wounded and weakened. As a metaphor for the Roman Catholic Church, this, too, is apt.

THE great baroque builder Bernini produced many masterpieces in Rome, but none exceeds the twin colonnades that sweep from St Peter's Basilica around most of St Peter's Square, designed to be a pair of great arms in a gesture of embrace to the world. Today, half of one of the arms has an ugly grey cover protecting restoration work, making it look wounded and weakened. As a metaphor for the Roman Catholic Church, this, too, is apt.

The church has just entered the interregnum, as the period between popes is called, with many leaders and commentators saying it is in crisis, making the choice of the next pope, the 266th, more vital than usual.

Benedict XVI himself spoke of the "turbulent waters and rough winds" he experienced during his papacy in his final public address last Wednesday, and was unusually trenchant in other recent speeches, excoriating the divisions that "disfigure" the church. Before his election he denounced "filth in the church", an apparent reference to clergy sex abuse.

So is the church in crisis or is that just a media perception, as the Vatican claimed this week? Certainly, the media can misrepresent the overall picture because of their focus on conflict and scandal, and the church's pulse is still strong in much of the world, if fading in the West. Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell this week described the global church as "lively, vital and growing". Of course, senior prelates can fall prey to the opposite temptation, to sanitise or downplay problems.

Either way, the symptoms of crisis are obvious, not least Benedict's decision that he could no longer cope and should resign. When he was elected, the great challenges of the day were identified as rising secularism in the West and the loss of faith among younger Catholics; the vanishing priests as they aged and died; issues of gender, sexuality and bioethics; the domination of the church by an autocratic Vatican bureaucracy; relations with other religions, especially Islam; and poverty and justice in the developing world, where by far the majority of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live.

Today, almost every one of those challenges is even more demanding, and most are dwarfed by the swift growth of a hydra-headed monster then only on the Vatican horizon - clerical sex abuse - which has challenged the integrity, credibility and moral foundation of the church. And now there is a new challenge, referred to by Cardinal Pell in his rare and gentle criticism of Benedict on Wednesday: leadership.

Many, from the faithful in the pews to unusually forthright cardinals, feel the church has lost its rudder.

Cardinal Pell said in another interview: "I want somebody who will maintain the tradition, especially in faith and morals where it's under attack. I want somebody who is able to speak to the world ... who is able to lift morale in the Roman Curia [Vatican bureaucracy] and perhaps provide a bit more discipline."

However veiled, this expressed a clear dissatisfaction with aspects of Benedict's papacy.

But Cardinal Pell's criticism paled in comparison with that of Robert Mickens, the respected veteran Vatican watcher for the independent British newspaper The Tablet. In a recent speech, he said the Vatican was imploding, "the collapse of an entire system, structure, ethos and culture, the crumbling of what is close to an absolute monarchy as ever existed and certainly the last absolute monarchy in the West".

Mickens spoke of bitter fights for promotion, corruption, cronyism among bishops and cardinals exposed by last year's Vatileaks scandal, the ongoing parade of Catholics out of the church, and the relentless decrease in priests, forcing parishes to close and merge in the Western world. These were symptoms of resurgent clericalism - that is, putting authority and trust only in the hands of priests and the hierarchy - which was a cancer spreading especially among younger clergy. Sex abuse cover-ups were, he said, a byproduct of clerical control and power, for which the only solution is structural change.

Australian commentator Paul Collins agrees. He thinks the only way out is to demolish the whole structure, root and branch, and begin again in a Vatican year zero, an idea he has promoted for several years. The Vatileaks scandal - in which the Pope's butler leaked thousands of documents to show how dysfunctional the Curia was - had been intended to help Benedict's stalled reforms, but merely made him look weak, Collins says. It showed the Pope had lost control to factional infighting, especially between the past and present secretaries of state (the Vatican's second-top job), Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Tarcisio Bertone.

But if Vatileaks was beyond his control, many of Benedict's problems were self-inflicted. Notable misjudgments included quoting a condemnation of Islam by a Byzantine emperor in a 2006 speech that led to riots and attacks on Christians in the Muslim world, and suggesting on a trip to Africa that condoms made AIDS worse. He showed unusual sympathy to the excommunicated ultra-traditionalist Society of St Pius X, then had to step back when it emerged a key bishop was a Holocaust denier. He offended Latin Americans by downplaying the effects of colonisation and Jews by reviving a Mass that prayed for their conversion.

But the biggest disappointment for critics was his mixed message on clergy sex abuse. He was regarded as far more aware than John Paul II, having insisted while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that all cases must be referred to him. He may have intended to show that the Vatican was taking the issue seriously, but it delayed action as the backlog of cases swelled, and many in the church interpreted the order as demanding cases be kept secret from secular authorities.

One bold declaration of intent was to discipline Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial abuser long protected by John Paul II, but he seemed to run out of energy under the constantly expanding magnitude of the disaster. According to Mark Dowd, a gay former Franciscan friar turned journalist who interviewed Benedict's brother Georg Ratzinger, a parish priest in Germany, the sex-abuse crisis took a great emotional toll on Benedict. Georg Ratzinger told him that Benedict would lie awake at night, sweating.

Not only does the crisis show no signs of abating, it has reached right into the conclave to elect the next pope. Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned as Archbishop of Edinburgh after four present and former priests accused him of inappropriate advances, and decided not to attend to avoid a media circus. So far, he is the only cardinal to make that decision, though up to a dozen others have come under pressure from victims' groups to withdraw. One, former Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, had his public duties humiliatingly removed by his successor over his failure to protect children. Mahony replied that he had been scapegoated, that he had done better than most, and turned to a popular church ploy: blame the media.

With an interesting elasticity, Vatican assistant spokesman Tom Rosica applauded Cardinal O'Brien's decision as "a positive thing for him and for all of us", then in the next breath defended Cardinal Mahony's refusal to emulate him, saying the Pope wanted every cardinal under 80 to attend. Except, apparently, Cardinal O'Brien. Father Rosica's discomfort highlighted the delicate dancing Vatican spokesmen have to employ on such subjects.

Then there are the sensational reports of a gay sex ring and blackmail inside the Vatican that emerged last month, with a secret 300-page report by three cardinals given to the Pope. Many speculated it was the final straw that led Benedict to decide to resign.

It is more likely the expressed reasons of his failing mental and physical health at a time of deep challenges is the real reason, that he cannot have spent 30 years in the Curia without knowing about gay priests, but the report must have added to his burden.

Paul Collins says the timing of the accusations against O'Brien are "just too opportune", and relates it to insider fighting at the Vatican, though he is not sure which faction might benefit, and suspects the same is true of the sex ring report. "The gay monsignori at the Piazza Navona [a popular gay haunt in Rome], plus the saunas and the bathhouses, it's been known for years. This is symptomatic of the toxic relationships in the Vatican. The politics are toxic, the institution is toxic."

English columnist Joanna Moorhead spoke for many when she asked in The Guardian this week: "How could an organisation that professes a direct link to Christ have gone so far off the rails? All cardinals and bishops seem to know about is covering up sex crimes, inappropriate behaviour among prelates, political infighting at the Vatican and the existence of a clandestine gay cabal at the highest level in Rome."

One interesting sidelight is that Curial rivals Sodano and Bertone hold important positions during the interregnum. Bertone, as the camerlengo or chamberlain, will take responsibility for the day-to-day running, while Sodano, as dean of the college of cardinals, will play a key role leading up to the conclave. Neither is regarded as remotely likely to become pope, but both will be important in deciding who does.

The next pope is unlikely to please the liberals when it comes to issues often identified as key: abortion, homosexuality, contraception, though a reconsideration of celibacy might be a remote prospect. Most cardinals simply don't see them as critical. But on issues such as clergy sex abuse and Curial reform, several cardinals have made public comments in the past few days.

All this highlights the challenges for the next pope. Whatever the issues are that are seen as most important - it was rising secularism in 2005 and may be again - sexual abuse and Vatican reform, especially where they intersect, will have to be on his agenda.

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