ROME - The Pope’s resignation is a unique event, although not entirely without historical precedent. Benedict XVI is retiring not in failure but as freely and serenely as Charles V -- who wasn’t a pope but an emperor, and one of the West’s major rulers when he put down his crown on October 25, 1555. It was one of the most gripping scenes in the history of Europe.
In 1530, Charles V was the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope. His realm, in which the sun never set, stretched across large expanses of the planet. He presided over the split in Christendom – the Reformation -- in Europe. Crippled with gout, dressed in black velvet, he turned the crown over to his son Philip at his Brussels court. What he said on this occasion needs to be quoted in full here:
Forty years ago I became King of Spain, then Emperor -- not to increase my possessions but rather to engage myself more vigorously in working for the welfare of Germany and my other provinces in the hopes of thereby bringing peace among the Christian peoples and uniting their fighting forces against the Ottomans. I had high hopes, only a few of which have been fulfilled and only a few of which remain. It has made me tired and sick. I have nonetheless never ceased resisting my foes or striving to fulfill my mission.
But now it would be irresponsible to put off abdicating any longer. I simply don’t have the strength anymore. I know well that in my long reign I have fallen into many errors and committed some wrongs, but it was from ignorance, and if there be any here whom I have wronged, they will believe it was not intended, and grant me their forgiveness.
Charles V never became a monk, but he did retire to the San Jerónimo de Yuste monastery in Spain where he spent the last three years of his life before his death on September 21, 1558.
Parallels to Charles V’s abdication sprang to mind when two weeks ago Benedict XVI appeared before the cardinals. He was the first new pope of the 21st century. Even if it was not of this earth, the sun never set on his “realm” either. The Roman Catholic Church has never in its history been as big as it is now, and the Pontifex Maximus faces new and unprecedented challenges.
The one who has just stepped down will also withdraw to a life of prayer: “the Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation.”
Joseph Ratzinger's biography is full of synchronicities and symbols, from the rainbow that formed over Auschwitz when, as a German-born Pope, he spoke there, to the lightening that struck St. Peter’s dome on the evening of his resignation. He was born on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – on April 16, the feast day of Lourdes mystic Bernadette Soubirous, which was just three days before the date he became Pope, on April 19.
The Madonna of Lourdes’ feast day, on the other hand, is on February 11, the day he resigned from the papacy. On February 28, 1982 he stepped down as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, then 31 years later on that same day came his abdication as Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
More modern than you might think
But if some kind of heavenly timing seems to rule his life, he viewed the papacy in a much more sober and modern way than many of his predecessors. If he never doubted that as successor of the Apostle Peter he embodied the rock on which Catholics believe Jesus of Nazareth founded his church, as a theologian he was fully aware of how weak Peter was. According to the Gospel, Peter was the only person Jesus prayed for.
But rock is rock. And when Benedict XVI became aware that he no longer had that solidity, he stepped down to make way for somebody who does. He is not fleeing the papacy: he has enriched it. He is not fleeing a burning Rome, rather moving deeper inside the Church.
Benedict’s legacy is already impressive. "Enlightenment" is probably the word that has played the greatest role in Joseph Ratzinger’s life, and it hovered like a star over his papacy, shedding light on matters as far-ranging as theology, holy liturgy, and the mystery of evil, to the roots of Christianity in Judaism and the essential need for Christian dialogue with Islam.
He didn’t please everyone, of course, least of all many Germans. And with Benedict’s abdication, a cultural challenge to the land of the Reformation that many didn’t feel up to meeting falls away as well. The nation was not proud of its greatest son of this century.
Now this universal Church’s German hour is over. With regard to his old home, Benedict’s departure is a little bit like that of the gatekeeper in Kafka’s The Trial who at the end closes the gate with the words: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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