Pope Benedict is stepping down for conscientious reasons about which he will have thought deeply. But I still fear that his decision is a mistake. First, its manner was unfortunate. An institution like the Catholic Church should avoid unnecessary shocks. It seems that the main people involved were told only on Sunday, and presented with a fait accompli. The news was announced the following day. Obviously, secrecy was important, but in a monarchical system, such a change is momentous and its consequences need to be thought through by the closest counsellors. The orthodoxy has grown up that the long physical decline of Pope John Paul II was a disaster which should not be repeated. This is not so (though it certainly created difficulties). The papacy is a sacred office, and the idea that its holder gives himself to it for life, despite whatever suffering it may entail, is an inspiring one. John Paul bore moving witness to this. Similarly, our own Queen has never shown the slightest inclination to abdicate: she believes she has a lifelong duty, promised to God, and would weaken the institution if she were to abandon it. What may seem right for this Pope now sets a tricky precedent. It will mean that future popes, as they age, will be vulnerable to plots to unseat them.
As he showed in his visit to Britain, Benedict has proved himself well capable of speaking to the modern world. His words will last. The defect of his papacy, displayed this week, has not been intellectual or ideological, but administrative. His shy, reclusive character meant that he never got to grips with the Vatican set-up. He did not appoint a secretary of state who could compensate for this. He dropped the system by which the Pope met every papal nuncio individually on appointment and every bishop individually on their five-yearly visits ad liminem. People did not know what he wanted, and so did not feel galvanised by his will. I suspect, therefore, that the question the conclave will ask itself now will be, ‘Who can actually run this extraordinary institution?’ This is why people are looking to the French Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who is 68, and is in charge of the Congregation for Bishops. He is a religious order priest (the Society of St Sulpice), a fluent speaker of Spanish and German, as well as French and English, with experience of Latin America, the struggle against North American secularism, and the strange politics of the Vatican.
Benedict’s critics, such as Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch, hold it against him that he has opposed majority opinion in the west and therefore ‘lost’. Since when has it been a principle of Christianity that the majority must be followed? Pontius Pilate made that mistake on Good Friday. In taking the name of Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger paid conscious homage to St Benedict, the founder of western monasticism. He cherished Benedict’s idea, in the Dark Ages, that the Church was the ark which would carry God’s message to safety through the flood. Seen in this context, his writings offer luminous arguments for future generations about the impossibility of a successful social order which excludes God. Now that he is retiring, he will avoid embarrassing his successor, but he should do something which no pope has ever previously been able to do: he should write his memoirs. He could be the Newman of the 21st century.
Can anyone think of a bigger scandal in any British public service than that revealed at Stafford Hospital? It is worse than Aberfan, or Bloody Sunday, or the King’s Cross fire, or Jimmy Savile, or even the abolition of grammar schools. Up to 1,200 people died unnecessarily, not because of one error, or a particular set of errors, but because of the way an entire hospital was run for several years. There is plenty of evidence now emerging that comparable disasters have taken place at other hospitals, for similar reasons. Yet I searched last Saturday’s Guardian in vain for a single mention. Politicians are desperately closing the subject down. They have persuaded themselves that everyone loves the NHS, especially its nurses. In fact, hardly anyone who knows an old person going through the system is satisfied, and many are utterly disgusted. Soon there will be a popular revolt, and the politicians won’t know what to do.
But although old people are treated appallingly in the NHS, I cannot follow the argument made by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, when he speaks of ‘the scandal of people having to sell their homes to pay for long-term care’. Why is it a scandal? There is a good chance that one will need long-term care in old age. Buying a house is, among other things, a form of saving, and long-term care is worth saving for. If you need such care, you probably will not need a house any more. If you have a spouse living in that house, the rules excuse you from having to sell it. Selling may be sad, but it is not scandalous. What is scandalous is that the encouragements for saving are so few, and so more old people are throwing themselves upon the mercy of the state, which will never be able to look after them properly.
As you can tell by the good condition of his coat, the fox at the top of this page is not an urban fox. He merely visits Old Queen Street. He never bites babies. He was amused, on Monday, when the Today programme, in its discussion of urban foxes, interviewed Professor Stephen Harris as a neutral expert on the subject. In fact, Professor Harris is not neutral. He is the standard expert witness for anti-hunt prosecutions. He maintains that all fox populations are completely self-regulating and that there is nothing wrong with feeding urban foxes. In the trial of the Heythrop Hunt shortly before Christmas, an email from Professor Harris to the RSPCA was disclosed to the court. In it, he said that it would be ‘very damaging’ if the court knew that he was recommended by the League Against Cruel Sports since this would compromise his reputation for independence. Does the BBC not know this?