The Trial of Pope Benedict

By Daniel Gawthrop

In the same spirit of j’accuse journalism as Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Daniel Gawthrop takes on the legacy of the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI (née Joseph Ratzinger) in an impassioned broadside that takes readers through a laundry list of scandal and sin ranging from the support of repressive regimes in Central and South America to shady financial dealings involving laundered American mob money.

Gawthrop, a self-professed “lapsed Catholic” and gay man, feels personally betrayed by the right turn the Catholic church took after the death of John Paul I, and its continuing failure to fulfill the promise of reform held out by Vatican II. In particular, he is angry at the church’s demonizing of homosexuality and its horrendous handling of a long history of child sexual abuse.

The case is damning but not unfair. The analysis of psychosexual issues surrounding the church’s attitudes toward women and gay priests is especially good, with Ratzinger himself appearing in the guise of a sexually underdeveloped – if not repressed – neo-con: someone whose early liberal tendencies were thrown spectacularly into reverse in response to his experience of 1960s campus counterculture. As prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and later as pope, he would prove an ardent defender of orthodoxy, hierarchy, and a medieval version of family values.

As a legal brief, however, the argument is a bit untidy. For one thing, given the secrecy of the church’s operations, there is much we don’t know about Benedict’s role in some of the issues Gawthrop raises. Furthermore, while Benedict was an arch-conservative pope by any standard, it must be kept in mind that the Catholic Church plays by its own rules. In time it may evolve along the lines Gawthrop sets out in his afterword (his suggestions include decentralizing power and convening a Vatican III council to review church policy on matters such as female ordination and clerical celibacy), but in doing so it will risk becoming indistinguishable from Protestantism, many offshoots of which have now become almost entirely decentralized and doctrine-free.

But if Gawthrop fails to convict on all charges beyond a reasonable doubt, he nevertheless shines a welcome light into some of the darker corners of the Vatican while making a strong case for greater openness and reform.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, August 2013.

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