Pope Benedict XVI’s life began in a picturesque Bavarian hamlet near Adolf Hitler’s birthplace. He will see out his days at a small Vatican monastery called “The Mother of the Church.”
Joseph Ratzinger, who at age 5 told his father he wanted to be a cardinal, will leave a mixed legacy after becoming the first Roman Catholic pontiff in 600 years to relinquish power, religious scholars from Rome to the U.S. said. The pope left the Vatican by helicopter for the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. His pontificate came to an end at 8 p.m. in Rome yesterday, when his Swiss guards were replaced by Vatican police at the palace and the Holy See’s flag was lowered.
While celebrated for theological tracts including books on the life of Jesus Christ, Benedict’s leadership of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was also scarred by scandals involving priestly child abuse and leaked papal documents. His parting gift to the next pontiff is a secret file on the case called “Vatileaks,” which Italian media say divulges a network of sex and graft in the church. The reports “don’t correspond to reality,” according to the Holy See.
“He leaves a church in crisis in various ways: from internal governance, to low morale, the sexual abuse, the loss of young people, all the older ones that have left, the evangelicals encroaching and secularists all over,” said historian R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Benedict used his final day as pope to greet some of the cardinals who will choose his successor. The cardinals will begin meeting on March 4 to discuss church issues and a date for the vote known as the conclave, Italian newswire Ansa reported today. The secret election in the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s fresco of God breathing life into Adam, will probably commence before March 15, the Vatican has said.
History will remember Benedict for the unique manner in which he quit on Feb. 11. In a hall packed with top Vatican officials, the shy scholar quietly read out his resignation in Latin. His monotone voice masked the significance of his words to all but a few, such as an Ansa reporter who used her knowledge of Rome’s ancient language to break the story.
It was a fitting end to an eight-year papacy marked by a discomfort with adapting to modern times. Exactly two months prior, Benedict’s shaky fingers had to be guided over an iPad as he dispatched his first tweet to cyberspace under @pontifex. The account will be deactivated, the Vatican said yesterday.
As he basked in applause and tears from pilgrims gathered Feb. 27 for his final general audience, Benedict summed up his papacy. There were moments of “joy and light” as well as times when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping,” he told an estimated 150,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.
The first pope elected in the 21st century, Benedict sought to rehabilitate a church under attack for failing to punish pedophile priests and allegedly covering up evidence. It wasn’t the only disgrace to befall the conservative theologian, who appeared better suited to penning Latin encyclicals than to the day-to-day running of his millennia-old institution.
Succeeding a revered pope who was swiftly put on the path to sainthood, Benedict couldn’t match John Paul II’s charisma. He was also saddled with a legacy of priestly sex abuse that his Polish predecessor had failed to fully confront.
A decade after first surfacing in the U.S. and soon after Benedict’s election, global allegations of sexual violence by clergy emerged from Ireland to his native Germany.
Initially slow to respond to public outrage, the pope faced unprecedented scrutiny as court records highlighted the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse dating back half a century. Two cases involved Benedict before he became pope.
As archbishop of Munich, he took part in a 1980 decision to move a priest accused of molestation to his diocese to undergo therapy, the Vatican said. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, he didn’t reply to two letters in 1996 from a U.S. archbishop seeking action against a priest for the alleged molestation of 200 deaf children between 1950 and 1974.
After a period of silence, Benedict began to speak publicly against the “cloud of filth” that had soiled the church. As pope, he oversaw the Vatican’s first publication of guidelines for dealing with clerics accused of abusing kids and he began to meet and pray with victims of abuse.
A low point came last year with “Vatileaks,” as the theft of papal documents by his butler came to be called. The papers were leaked to Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian journalist who wrote a book portraying the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and Benedict as being undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Butler Did It
It took months for the pontiff to respond, and then only to remark that the “gratuitous” coverage of the events by the media had “brought sadness to my heart.” He went on to pardon his valet, who confessed to leaking the memos, after he was sentenced to 18 months in a Vatican jail.
In his last days as pope, Benedict began to allude to the church’s malaise. In a Feb. 13 sermon, he spoke of the church’s “sometimes disfigured face.” In a Feb. 23 address to the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, he lamented the “evil, suffering and corruption” that sullied the institution.
After Benedict’s reign, the church needs a “rebranding,” Timothy Stanley, a historian of American history at Oxford University and convert to Catholicism, wrote in a commentary posted on CNN’s website yesterday. The next pope must be able to “communicate timeless messages in a new way” as well as overhaul the Curia.
Enforcer of Doctrine
A traditionalist, Benedict succeeded John Paul II after spending a quarter century as the enforcer of doctrine in an office formerly known as the Inquisition. In that office, he clashed with Latin American priests such as Leonardo Boff of Brazil, who helped forge a new “liberation theology” aimed at improving the life of the poor.
Benedict spent years penning by hand his philosophical take on the life of Jesus Christ in a three-volume book. He was an enemy of “moral relativism” and considered it his main job to resist, not embrace like the rival Anglican Church, changes affecting modern society.
“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said in April 2005, a day before cardinals met to elect him pope.
Benedict maintained orthodoxy and opposition on such issues as homosexuality, marriage for priests and an expanded role for women. He also tried to continue his predecessor’s outreach to other religions, often with mixed results that tested ties with Jews and Muslims alike.
In 2009, he initially failed to chastise U.K. bishop Richard Williamson about an interview in which he said historical evidence was “against” 6 million Jews having been killed by the Nazis. Williamson’s comments outraged the Jewish community and coincided with Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunication of Williamson, who had been shunned for not accepting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The Vatican’s handling of the situation triggered a diplomatic incident with Benedict’s native Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the pontiff to dissipate the impression “that Holocaust denial might be tolerated.”
At the time, Jewish groups were already agitated at the prospect of a beatification of Pius XII, the subject of the 2000 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” a book that examines the conduct of that pontiff toward Jews during the Nazi regime.
Unlike the globe-trotting John Paul, Benedict picked his trips carefully and they often became damage-control missions. In 2008 visits to the U.S. and Australia, he met and apologized to victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests. Anger over his handling of the Williamson affair also motivated a trip to Israel.
Benedict was more at ease giving scholarly discourses on theology than working crowds like John Paul II. His penchant for quoting obscure texts got him into trouble with the Arab world in a post-Sept. 11 climate.
During a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 2006, the pope cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Those comments sparked condemnations and violent protests in Muslim countries that forced Benedict to apologize and even travel to Turkey. In Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, he turned toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca in a conciliatory gesture to Islam.
As the global credit crunch erupted, Benedict found his voice as an advocate for a new financial and social order. As an octogenarian, he published a well-timed, 150-page encyclical calling for a new economic system with “real teeth.”
Some even called him a financial visionary. Former Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti credited Benedict with being the first to predict the crisis, referring to a “prophecy” in a paper Benedict wrote in 1985 when he was a cardinal.
His financial foresight wasn’t enough to stave off scrutiny of the Vatican bank. In 2010, Italian magistrates opened a probe into the bank for alleged violations of money-laundering laws and froze 23 million euros ($30 million) in a Rome account held by the church institute.
The case helped prompt Benedict to take up efforts to align the Vatican with global norms on financial transparency. The pope on Feb. 15 appointed Ernst von Freyberg, a German lawyer and financial adviser, to lead the Vatican bank.
“It’s a popular notion to say Benedict didn’t reform, and it’s not entirely true,” said Thomas. J. Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican: the Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,” by e-mail. “It was his call to subject the Vatican to international standards under the European anti-laundering agency and he brought in outsiders to look at the finances.”
“For a pope who probably couldn’t balance his check book, if he had one, this was an extraordinary achievement,” said Reese, a Jesuit priest who teaches at Georgetown University.
The recurring theme of his papacy was a battle against relativism, wherein religious truth and practices are malleable to suit the lifestyle demands of changing cultures. Until the end, he argued it would be a mistake to compromise on ideology to make the faith more accessible to modern life.
Nonetheless, Benedict reviewed the church’s much-criticized stance on contraception. He ordered a 200-page report to explore the effect the use of condoms could have in stopping the spread of infectious diseases, including AIDS.
‘Humanization of Sexuality’
The effort eventually yielded a shift in attitude toward sex. In 2010, Benedict said that condom use can be justified in “single cases,” for example by sex workers, as a necessary “humanization of sexuality.”
Under the pope, the seven cardinal vices first set out in the sixth century were updated to the seven “social” sins, which included excessive wealth, drug abuse, littering, genetic tampering and creating poverty.
Benedict was born as Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Germany. He dreamed of a life in the priesthood after Cardinal Michael Von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, spoke to his kindergarten class. It was Faulhaber himself who ordained him a priest in 1951.
Under the Nazis, Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth, which was obligatory at the time, though he was a silent dissenter and skipped all meetings, according to biographer John Allen Jr. His father was a harsh critic of the regime. Ratzinger was drafted into the German army and later deserted at 16.
As a young priest he espoused progressive ideas on theological issues until the student revolutions of 1968 instilled a distrust of the political left in him that caused him to shift to a more orthodox stance.
Ratzinger studied philosophy and theology in Munich and Freising, where he joined the priesthood, and went on to teach at the universities of Bonn, Muenster, Tuebingen and Regensburg. He became archbishop of Munich in March 1977 and cardinal three months later.
His volumes on Jesus Christ, the last of which was published last year, as well as a series of popular books on religion “often struck people as profound and surprisingly free of ideological edge,” according to Allen.
Benedict’s key accomplishment, in the end, was his ability to communicate “deep theological profundity that has been expressed with amazing clarity and almost childlike simplicity,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in an interview with CNN broadcast yesterday.
Benedict was the first German pontiff since Victor II in the 11th century and the oldest cardinal elected since Clement XII, who was also 78 when chosen in 1730. His fellow cardinals needed only four ballots to select him pope.
Benedict’s closest living relative is his older brother Georg, 89, who also became a priest. “I’d been noticing for some time that he no longer had the strength or the conviction to go on,” Georg Ratzinger said in a Feb. 12 interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica. His abdication “was a great gesture of Christian humility.”
Benedict will return to the Vatican in about two months to live out his days in prayer in a convent with the title “pope emeritus.” He addressed thousands of well-wishers after arriving in Castel Gandolfo, his last public remarks as pope.
“I would still like with my heart, with my love, with my prayer, with my thoughts, with all my strength to work for the common good, for the good of the church and of mankind,” he said yesterday.