The last time a pope resigned -- Gregory XII in 1415 -- it was to end a 40-year schism that threatened to tear the church in two. Today, the church faces a crisis that may be no less profound, and it has to do it with the entire world watching. (Gregory didn't have to contend with the Twittersphere.) And while many things remain opaque in the secret and closeted Vatican, one thing we know for sure is that the church faces a fundamental divide that threatens its future far more than the scandals that are dominating front pages.
"This time is different, the crisis is much deeper and more difficult to solve than it appears," an Italian bishop with long experience in the Curia laments. "Catholics are deeply divided between a group of conservatives, constantly looking toward the past that will never come back, and progressives, who pushed themselves too far from any possible compromise with the other group. I don't envy the next pope."
According to sources close to the pope, Benedict XVI resigned because he felt he no longer had the physical and intellectual energy to address the Vatican's problems. These problems started to emerge in the late 1990s,with the revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States. Church officials hoped the scandal could be contained in America, but soon there were similar reports of abuses and church cover-ups in Ireland, Belgium, Britain, and even Benedict's old parish in Germany. The fallout from the abuse investigations was compounded by other scandals including remarks by Benedict that upset the Muslim community in 2006, the rehabilitation of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson in 2009, and revelations of money laundering at the Vatican's bank, IOR, last year. If Benedict were an elected politician, it's unlikely his government could have survived.
The most recent blow to the pope's authority was the "Vatileaks" scandal, which erupted in January 2012 when the Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, received a trove of secret documents directly from the pope's apartment -- documents that proved beyond any doubt the disarray inside the Curia. The revelations pointed to widespread corruption within the Curia, including bribes demanded to secure a papal audience. Benedict asked three trusted and experienced cardinals -- Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko, and Salvatore De Giorgi -- to investigate the matter, and they produced a report that was given to the pope a few weeks before his resignation. The report is classified, but that hasn't stopped rumors about it from swirling around the world.
The rumors suggest that church leaders have been routinely participating in at least two or three of the deadly sins. The most outrageous accusation is that inside the Vatican there is a "gay lobby" strong enough to influence the church leadership. It is not clear whether this accusation is actually written in the report by the three cardinals; however sources inside the Curia confirm to me that something like a "gay lobby" exists, just as they confirm the struggle for economic power around IOR, the Vatican bank.
The pope apparently knew all about this corruption before the report came out but didn't think he had the strength to fight the battle. Therefore he decided to resign as a "great act of governance of the Church," as his spokesman Father Federico Lombardi put it. Benedict couldn't solve the problems himself, so he opted to shock the Vatican and push for the election of a successor that will have a better chance to redeem the Holy See.