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Death of Pope Emeritus Leaves a Unique and Complex Legacy

Pope Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, arriving in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 2014.
AP File Photo/Andrew Medichini

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Claire Giangravé was published on Dec. 31, 2022. It has been edited for length.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who will be remembered for being the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to resign in 600 years, died Saturday, Dec. 31, at his home at the Vatican.

The retired pontiff’s health started to decline during the Christmas season, and Pope Francis called faithful to pray for his “very sick” predecessor on Wednesday. He was 95.

The emeritus pope’s body will be brought to St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 2, the Vatican announced Saturday. 

Before he was elected by his fellow cardinals in 2005 to become the first German pope, Benedict served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. His rigorous interpretations of church teaching and discipline earned him the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” in contrast with the shy, introspective, and art-loving man depicted by his friends.

His death put an end to the complexities of having two popes reside in the Vatican. This is the first time in the modern era that a pope has died while another is in power, leaving aside the need for a conclave of cardinals to elect his successor.

Related: The Pope’s Resignation and the Meaning of Office (The Banner Faith Matters, September 2013); Movie Review: The Two Popes (The Banner Mixed Media, January 2020).

Benedict XVI spent the last years of his life in relative isolation at the Vatican, living in a monastery within the city-state’s walls, surrounded by a handful of aides and supporters. He only made a few public appearances with Pope Francis. 

When Cardinal Josef Ratzinger emerged as Pope Benedict XVI in the conclave of 2005, he was faced with the challenge of following the charismatic John Paul II, whose influence went beyond the Catholic Church in a nearly three-decade-long pontificate.

Benedict was seen as a continuation of a push against secularization, but with a scholarly bent. His choice of the name Benedict signaled in particular his desire to awaken the faith in the church’s ancient home in Europe, according to the Rev. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai, a theologian and author of “Light of Reason, Light of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment.”

“Benedict believed that reason and love can serve as a better foundation for the freedom that the West seeks and desires,” said Ashley Agbaw-Ebai in an email to Religion News Service.

Born April 16, 1927, Benedict was ordained a priest in 1951 in his native Bavaria, Germany, and soon entered a circle of influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac.

Initially he was drawn to the progressive theological currents of the Nouvelle Théologie that ushered in new ideas for the reform of the church.

He participated in the Second Vatican Council, which was called by Pope John XXIII to reform the church, working as a theological adviser to German Cardinal Josef Richard Frings, who advocated on behalf of the Jewish people during the Nazi regime, which Ratzinger had also experienced as a youth.

Ratzinger was considered a reformer at the time, working closely with some of the most progressive theologians present at the council.

The sexual and cultural revolution of 1968 put an end to Ratzinger’s progressive leanings, and his views became more conservative.

After being appointed bishop of Munich and Freising in 1977—and made cardinal the same year—he went to the Vatican in 1981 to take over the role of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), charged with addressing important theological and doctrinal matters of the Catholic Church.

As prefect, Ratzinger upheld traditional Catholic views on life issues, sexuality, and homosexuality. He approved rules prohibiting men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from entering the priesthood. He was also responsible for overseeing charges of sexual abuse by clergy, which fell under his jurisdiction.

After the Boston Globe reported that scores of priests had abused children, prompting headlines worldwide in 2002, he issued a letter titled De Delicti Gravioribus (On More Serious Crimes), which imposed confidentiality on certain Vatican documents, including those concerning sexual abuse.

The letter was later criticized for “obstructing justice” in clergy abuse cases in the United States. In 2005, Benedict was named in a Texas lawsuit involving a seminarian accused of abuse. Government officials in the United States argued that he should be given immunity. 

But while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger launched the Vatican’s first efforts to combat clergy abuse and extended canon law to address child pornography, raising the possibility of waiving the statute of limitations and speeding up the procedure to laicize guilty priests.

Once elected pope, Benedict launched an investigation into the Legion of Christ and its founder, ex-priest and pedophile Marcial Maciel, whom he later laicized and retired to a “life of penitence and prayer.”

Benedict’s own action or inaction while bishop of Munich led to accusations of wrongdoing in handling sexual abuse cases in a January 2022 report. In open letters shortly after the release of the report Benedict denied any wrongdoing while condemning sexual abuse and coverup.

Benedict visited fewer countries than his predecessor, but his trips to the U.S., Australia, Africa, and the Middle East attracted huge crowds. 

“In his two visits to Africa and in his post-synodal exhortation Africae Munus, Benedict shows a clear admiration of the cultural values of Africa,” said Ashley Agbaw-Ebai. “From an African perspective, Benedict’s papacy could be read as a papacy of culture and spirituality, a Christo-centric and Eucharistic spirituality that demands breaking down barriers of tribe and fostering love and reconciliation in Africa.”

Benedict would sometimes refer to Africa as the “lung of the church” due to its strong spirituality, high number of vocations and young population. He appointed several Africans to hold Vatican positions and strengthened ties between African countries and Rome. 

“Benedict was a teacher, and for the wider church I think his pontificate represented a back-to-the-basics course in Christianity,” said John Thavis, an American journalist and author of The Vatican Diaries.

“After more than a quarter-century of outreach under John Paul II, the church under Benedict looked inward—at what it believes and what it teaches,” said Thavis. “I think Benedict thought that before engaging the world, Christians needed a clearer understanding of their own faith.”

Where Benedict succeeded in fostering ecumenical dialogue with Protestant and Orthodox denominations, he failed to promote interreligious dialogue with Muslims and Jews.

In September 2006, Benedict angered Muslims when he gave a controversial speech at his former university in Regensburg, Germany, quoting a 14th-century emperor who said Islam’s Prophet Muhammad had brought only “evil and inhuman” things. 

Benedict’s decision in 2007 to allow the celebration of the Tridentine Mass drew backlash from Jewish groups who objected to the anti-Semitic language used in the rite.

In 2009, Benedict apologized for lifting the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying traditionalist from England who was ordained illegitimately by the controversial French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.

As pontiff, Benedict was also unsuccessful in cleaning up the disorganized and scandal-ridden offices at the Vatican. According to the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican and a Religion News Service columnist, Benedict’s “public failures were caused by his not consulting a wider range of advisers.”

The Vatileaks scandal, which broke in 2012, brought to light letters and other documents outlining corruption and a lack of financial transparency in the church’s administration, and revealed a pope increasingly overwhelmed by factionalism and political gamesmanship within the Vatican.

On Feb. 11, 2013, Benedict announced his resignation in a speech to the cardinals in Latin citing a “lack of strength of mind and body.” He took on the title of pope emeritus and continued to live in a secluded alcove at the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae at the Vatican.

A pope straddling past and present, he paved the way forward for the church in the new millennium, laying the groundwork for addressing sexual abuse and, more prosaically, creating the first papal Twitter account.

But he struggled to reconcile his traditional Catholic views, founded on the matrimony between faith and reason, with a world that he considered to be “under the dictatorship of relativism.”

While clinging to deeply cemented beliefs, he sent new shock waves into the future with his resignation.

“Benedict XVI may be our least understood pope,” said the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Opus Dei University of Santa Croce in Rome and media commentator on Catholic affairs.

“He was a revolutionary, but in a way that’s hard to pull off and easy to miss: He was boldly, daringly self-effacing. Nowhere is this clearer than in his unprecedented resignation: the single most revolutionary act of any pope in the last few centuries.”

©  2022 Religion News Service

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