Pope Benedict XVI's Only True Act Of Reform Was His Last

With his historic resignation, Benedict offers a more modern vision of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, says a commentator from his native Germany, he was a man stuck in the last millennium.

Pope Benedict XVI's Only True Act Of Reform Was His Last
Heribert Prantl

MUNICH- In Rome, under St. Peter’s vast dome, a quotation from Matthew stands written in huge letters: “ you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The words pack not only a magical kind of authority but an enormous demand, elevating the Pope, yet simultaneously placing a great weight upon his shoulders. And to be Peter, the rock on which the Church is built, has for centuries been anything but a job one could quit. So for the Catholic world, the impact of the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation is simply immense.

The move breaks with 2,000 years of tradition and splits open the concept of the Catholic papacy which sees the 264 Popes since Peter as successors of the Apostle, as Vicar of Christ, as God’s representative on Earth. A retired representative, a former Vicar, an ex-Pope? Until now, unthinkable. There has previously been only one abdication – Pope Celestine V in 1294 (Gregory XII resigned only to end the Western Schism in 1415).

And now over more than a half-millennium later, Benedict XVI, for reasons of old age, has dared to do the unthinkable. Yet in his tired, enfeebled state he has revealed that he possesses not only inner strength but historic greatness, overcoming his own autocratic understanding of what leadership is -- because on those terms resignation wouldn’t have been possible.

But there is also something bitter, even tragic, in this greatness, because Benedict is only showing his power as he departs. Resigning is the only thing he has done to break the chain of tradition. Otherwise, he either left the chain untouched or – here and there – reinforced it. Only with his resignation does he grow beyond himself, beyond his conventional understanding of the Church.

In facing the problems besetting the Catholic Church today, Benedict remained a Pope of the second millennium who was at home with the theological wisdom of that age – a wisdom that failed to give him any understanding of the third millennium. Benedict was and is the last of the old church fathers -- his dissertation was on St. Augustine, his habilitation on Franciscan philosopher Bonaventura. He thinks with such men, and felt comfortable with their teachings. He never dared take a stab at the new.

Knocking at the door

When Benedict became Pope nearly eight years ago, he was seen as a pope of transition, a bridge-builder between the traditional and the new. He worked with selfless devotion. He faced up to the abuse scandals. But he didn’t build any bridges to cross to take his flock to the other side. He remained a transitional pope, and the question that remains after a papacy like that is: Transition to what? Nobody knows.

The Catholic Church is no longer triumphant. It is not militant. It is a Church of questions – questions that knock, hammer, at the doors of the Vatican -- and are still not allowed entry. Questions like the role of women in the Church. Celibacy. Sexual morality. The Church’s role in the world.

In his last interview before his death, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, asked: “For whom are the sacraments? The sacraments are not a disciplinary instrument, but a help for people at moments on their journey and when life makes them weak. Are we bringing the sacraments to the people who need new strength? I’m thinking of all the divorced people and couples who have remarried and extended families.

The Church has little time for non-traditional families. It’s a Church that has been stagnating for 200 years. The Vatican never let itself be touched by the vitality and imaginative power of the Catholicism in Third World countries, particularly Latin America. Churches in Europe are large – and empty. The Catholic Church is well-organized, yet bleeding power.

Ecclesia semper reformanda (“the church is always to be reformed”) is a phrase some attribute to St. Augustine, others to Martin Luther. It matters not. But if the essence of the Church is constant self-renewal, then that essence got lost long ago. The Catholic Church has seldom been in such serious need of reform as it is at the end of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

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.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

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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