Pope Emeritus Benedict was the first pontiff to step down in 600 years, leaving behind a Catholic Church battered by sex abuse scandals, mismanagement and polarized between conservatives and progressives.
The first German pope in 1,000 years died Saturday at age 95. He had good relations with his successor, Pope Francis, but his continued presence within the Vatican after his resignation in 2013 deepened ideological differences in the church.
Conservatives, alarmed by Francis’ progressive decisions, saw Benedict as the guardian of tradition. Several times he had to tell nostalgic admirers through visitors: “There is a pope, and it is Francis.”
Benedict, a piano teacher and formidable theologian, admitted he was a weak leader who struggled to overcome the opaque Vatican bureaucracy and stumbled from crisis to crisis during his eight-year pontificate.
Benedict repeatedly apologized for Church’s flawed policies on the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, and although he was the first pope to take serious action, his efforts failed to halt the rapid decline of membership in the West, especially in Europe.
In 2022, an independent report in his native Germany alleged that Benedict XVI failed to take action in four abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.
Shocked by the report, he acknowledged in an emotional personal letter that there were mistakes and asked for forgiveness. His lawyers argued in a detailed rebuttal that he was not directly at fault.
Benedict will be remembered for shocking the world on Feb. 11, 2013, when he announced in Latin that he was stepping down and told cardinals he was too old and frail to lead an institution with more than 1.3 billion members.
“There were moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy (…) There were times … when the sea was rough and the wind was blowing against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping,” Benedict said at his last general audience, a gathering of more than 150,000 people.
The See of St. Peter was declared vacant on Feb. 28, 2013, when Benedict was installed at the papal summer retreat in Castelgandolfo, south of Rome, as cardinals from around the world gathered at the Vatican to elect his successor.
Before formally resigning, Benedict and his aides unilaterally chose the title of “pope emeritus” and decided he would continue to wear a white, albeit slightly modified, cassock.
Some in the Church objected, saying he left his successor’s hands tied, and that he should have returned to dressing as a cardinal or priest.
After the election of Pope Francis on March 13, Benedict moved into a renovated convent on the Vatican grounds to spend his final years praying, reading, playing the piano and hosting friends.
He rarely appeared in public again, usually for major Church ceremonies, though he also paid a visit in June 2020 to his ailing brother Georg, a priest, in Bavaria. Georg died soon after, aged 96.
Although he said he would remain “hidden from the world,” Benedict failed to fulfill that promise and, in his retirement, sometimes caused controversy and confusion through his writings.
In an essay for a Church magazine in Germany in 2019, he blamed the crisis over the abuse of children by priests on the effect of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, what he called homosexual cliques in seminaries and a widespread collapse of morality.
Critics accused him of trying to deflect blame from the institutional church hierarchy, but it was music to the ears of conservatives, who came to his defense.
Confusion over Benedict’s role came to a head in January 2020 over the extent of his involvement in a book written by a conservative cardinal, which some saw as an attempt to influence a document Pope Francis was preparing.
This led Francis to fire Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s secretary, from a high-level post at the Vatican. Ganswein’s role as an intermediary between Benedict and the cardinal was unclear, and many believed he had manipulated Benedict, the cardinal, or both.
The episode prompted calls from some Vatican officials to set clear rules on the status of any future pontiff who resigns.
Francis has said he would prefer the title of bishop emeritus of Rome, as some suggest, if he ever resigns. He has also said he would not live in the Vatican but in a home for retired priests in Rome.
An uncompromising conservative on social and theological issues, Benedict literally dressed in tradition during his papacy, often wearing fur-adorned cloaks and red shoes in his public appearances, a stark contrast to his successor’s more humble and realistic style.
He antagonized Muslims when he seemed to suggest that Islam was inherently violent and angered the Jewish community. The blunders and missteps culminated in 2012, when leaked documents revealed corruption, intrigue and disputes within the Vatican.
The “Vatileaks” case resulted in the arrest of his butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was convicted of handing over secret documents to a journalist. Benedict later pardoned him, and he was given a job at a Vatican-owned hospital. He died in 2020.
Media speculated that the case, which exposed allegations by a lobby group of gay clerics operating against the pope, may have pressured him to resign. Benedict insisted he retired because he could no longer bear the weight of the pontificate, including the grueling international travel the post demanded.
In a book interview published in 2016, he acknowledged his flaws but did not consider his papacy a failure.
“One of my weaknesses is perhaps the lack of determination in the government and in decision-making. I’m really more of a teacher, a person who reflects and meditates on spiritual questions,” Benedict said in the book “Last Testament” by German journalist Peter Seewald.
“THE ROTTWEILER OF GOD”
He was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in the village of Marktl in southern Germany, near Austria.
As a teenager, he forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth during World War II and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by the Allies, but he was never a member of the Nazi Party.
“Neither Ratzinger nor any member of his family was a National Socialist,” John Allen, a leading expert on the Church, wrote in a biography of Benedict.
Ratzinger became a priest in 1951 and came to attention as a liberal theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 and led to a profound reform of the church.
However, the Marxism and atheism of the 1968 student protests in Europe prompted him to become more conservative in defending the faith in the face of secularism.
After periods as professor of theology and then as archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger was appointed in 1981 to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the successor office of the Inquisition, where he earned the epithet “The Rottweiler of God.”
Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II agreed that traditional doctrine had to be restored in the church after a period of experimentation.
Ratzinger first turned his attention to “liberation theology,” popular in Latin America, ordering the silencing in 1985 of Brazilian friar Leonardo Boff, whose writings were attacked for using Marxist ideas.
In the 1990s, Ratzinger lobbied theologians, mainly in Asia, who saw non-Christian religions as part of God’s plan for humanity.
A 2004 document from Ratzinger’s office denounced “radical feminism” as an ideology that undermined the family and obscured the natural differences between men and women.
As pope since 2005, Benedict tried to show the world the kinder side of his nature, but he never achieved John Paul II’s “rock star” status or been particularly comfortable in his pontificate.
Child abuse scandals plagued most of his papacy. He ordered an official investigation into abuse in Ireland, leading to the resignation of several bishops, but the Vatican’s relations with the devout Irish community collapsed. Dublin closed its embassy to the Holy See in 2011.
The victims demanded that he be investigated by the International Criminal Court. The Vatican said it could not take responsibility for the crimes of others and the court decided not to take the case.
In September 2013, he denied silencing the scandals. “As for you mentioning the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with deep dismay. But I never tried to cover them up,” he said in a letter to Italian author Piergiorgio Odifreddi.
Benedict visited his homeland three times as pope and confronted his dark past when he went to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Calling himself “a son of Germany,” he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jewish, died there during World War II.
A trip to Germany also provoked the first major crisis of his pontificate. At a university conference in 2006, he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who claimed that Islam had only brought evil to the world and that it spread at the point of swords.
After protests that included attacks on churches in the Middle East and the killing of a nun in Somalia, the pope said he regretted any misunderstanding the speech had caused.
In a gesture widely seen as conciliatory, he made a historic trip to predominantly Muslim Turkey later that year and prayed at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque alongside the city’s grand mufti.
El papa hizo un viaje a Estados Unidos en 2008 donde se disculpó por el escándalo de abusos sexuales, prometió que los sacerdotes pedófilos tendrían que irse y consoló a las víctimas de abusos.
Pero en 2009, Benedicto dio un paso en falso tras otro.
El mundo judío y muchos católicos se indignaron después de que levantó la excomunión de cuatro obispos tradicionalistas, uno de los cuales era un notorio negacionista del Holocausto. Benedicto dijo más tarde que el Vaticano debería haberlo investigado mejor.
The pope also sparked international consternation in March 2009, when he told reporters on a plane taking him to Africa that using condoms in the fight against AIDS only made the problem worse.
At the Vatican, he preferred to appoint men he trusted and some of his early appointments were controversial.
He chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who had worked with him in the Vatican’s doctrinal office, to be secretary of state, even though he had no diplomatic experience. Later, Bertone became embroiled in a financial scandal over the remodeling of his Vatican apartment.
Benedict supported Christian unity, but other religions criticized him in 2007 when he approved a document that reaffirmed the Vatican’s position that non-Catholic Christian institutions were not churches full of Jesus Christ.
Critics saw his papacy as a concerted push to turn back the clock on reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which modernized the Catholic Church in sometimes turbulent ways.
Benedict reformulated some council decisions to align them more with traditional practices such as the Latin Mass and the Vatican’s highly centralized government.
One of the themes to which he often returned was the threat of relativism, rejecting the concept that moral values were not absolute but relative to who had them and the era in which they lived.
Benedict wrote three encyclicals, the most important form of papal document, including the 2007 “Spe Salvi” (Saved by Hope), an attack on atheism. The 2009 “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) called for a rethinking of the way the global economy is run.
Despite the difficulties that arose from having two men dressed in white at the Vatican, Francis developed a warm relationship with the man who was once nicknamed “Cardinal Panzer” and said it was like having a grandfather at home.
“He speaks little (…) but with the same depth as before,” Francis once said.