Benedict XVI, who led the Roman Catholic Church through a period of transformation, controversy and scandal before becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, has died.
The pope emeritus was 95.
Benedict had been expected to make his papacy largely about reasserting traditional conservative Roman Catholic doctrine but ended up spending much of it dealing with the fallout of the church’s sexual abuse scandal.
At 78, Benedict was elected as pontiff in April 2005, so his term had always been expected to be short, relative to his predecessors.
Known more for teachings than charisma
He was the oldest cardinal to become pope since Clement XII in 1730 and was seen by many as a “transitional” leader.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a Catholic scholar known more for his rigorous theological teachings than his charisma, was an unexpected choice. Some considered him too polarizing and radical compared to his populist predecessor, John Paul II.
Benedict made history when, on Feb. 28, 2013, he became the first pope in almost 600 years to resign.
Pope Gregory XII, in 1415, was the last to quit while in office.
Benedict cited his age — he was 85 — and deteriorating health as reasons for his resignation. In late 2022, those who had seen Benedict said his body was very frail but his mind was still sharp. However, Italian news reports said he had been suffering from respiratory problems over the Christmas period.
His decision to resign after holding the papacy for less than eight years caught Catholics around the world and even some of his closest advisers off guard.
Many expected his papacy to be characterized by a strict conservative interpretation of Roman Catholic doctrine.
While he definitely used his time as pope to espouse his vision of a “purer” Catholic Church and denounce the “dictatorship of relativism” he saw as permeating modern secular society and infiltrating parts of the church, he held what would be considered liberal positions on many social issues.
He opposed the death penalty and the war in Iraq; advocated for the poor and disenfranchised; included excessive wealth and environmental pollution among the seven modern sins he introduced in 2008; and denounced the blind pursuit of economic profit for its own good.
In the end, however, these aspects of his papacy were largely overshadowed by the widening scope of the sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic clergy.
Abuses of the past
One of Benedict’s first acts as pope was to remove Marcial Maciel Degollado, a known pedophile and philanderer, from active ministry. The disgraced leader of the Legion of Christ, a secretive Catholic order Degollado founded in Mexico, had sexually abused young seminarians over several decades and fathered children by different women.
But before Benedict, Degollado had never been sanctioned by the church.
Allegations that the church had turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by clergy cut even closer in 2010, when details surfaced that a priest from Essen, accused of sexually abusing minors, was transferred to Ratzinger’s archdiocese for “therapy” in 1980, when Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich.
Peter Hullermann was given a pastoral assignment in the archdiocese and continued to molest minors for years, even after he was convicted of such offences in 1986.
Although Ratzinger’s vicar-general at the Munich diocese, Gerhard Gruber, took full responsibility for Hullermann’s transfer there and claimed Ratzinger was not aware of all personnel matters within the archdiocese, many found it hard to believe he could have remained ignorant of the case.
Scandal — even after apology
The Hullermann case was just one of hundreds of abuse allegations that surfaced during Benedict’s papacy, including at least 300 in Germany alone.
The pope could not shake the scandal, even after he wrote an unprecedented formal letter of apology to victims of abuse in Ireland, where the Catholic Church had been rocked by revelations that bishops, often in collusion with the state and police, covered up abuse and made children sign confidentiality agreements protecting their abusers.
Benedict appointed a group of prelates to investigate Irish dioceses and seminaries in May 2010. He was also the first pope to hold an official summit on the topic of sexual abuse in the church, assembling bishops from 100 countries and the leaders of 33 religious orders for a four-day conference at the Vatican in February 2012.
Then in January 2022, an independent report commissioned by the German church found he failed to act in four cases of sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Munich, between 1977 and 1982.
Benedict later asked for forgiveness for his handling of the cases, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Benedict’s tenure was also marred by a handful of personal gaffes and controversies, which he sometimes took pains to correct.
In 2006, for example, he angered Muslims around the world when he chose to quote a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s disparaging remarks about Islam during a theological lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria.
He tried to ease the rift three months later by visiting Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, becoming only the second pope in history to enter a Muslim house of worship.
In 2009, he drew condemnation for reversing the excommunications of schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, some of whom had denied certain aspects of the Holocaust.
He also raised eyebrows when he created a special division of the Catholic Church for Anglican bishops defecting from the Church of England over issues such as the ordaining of women bishops.
Although generally unwavering on issues such as homosexuality, the ordaining of women priests and contraception, Benedict surprised many in November 2010 when he told a journalist that there may be some cases in which using a condom is justified.
In speaking out, for example, against the war in Iraq or excessive consumption, he saw the alignment of a social conscience with one’s individual morality as integral to Catholic teachings and as the only way to alleviate human suffering and bring the world out of its moral turpitude.
“It is the responsibility of the church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil, to unmask this idolatry of money, which enslaves man,” he told media travelling with him on a March 2012 papal visit to Mexico, where he spoke out strongly against the country’s deadly drug war.
He advocated against the clergy’s direct engagement in politics, whether in Latin America or elsewhere.
“The church’s mission is not political in nature,” he said on a visit to the West African country of Benin. “Christ does not propose a revolution of a social or political kind.”
Instead, Benedict focused on the idea of charity — rather than the more political notion of social justice — as “the heart of the church’s social doctrine” and urged Christians engaged in charitable works to “not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world,” but rather by their “living relationship with Christ” and the love for others it inspires.
The seminary years
An accomplished pianist who spoke several languages, Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, a small town in Bavaria, the strongly Catholic region in southern Germany.
His father, a policeman also named Joseph, came from an old Bavarian farming family of modest means. He took an anti-Nazi stance after Adolf Hitler came to power, and the family moved several times before settling in a village outside the city of Traunstein in 1937.
Ratzinger entered the seminary at Traunstein in 1939 and in 1943 was drafted along with the rest of his class into an anti-aircraft unit of the military.
In his early teens, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was compulsory for all German children at the time, although according to National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John L. Allen Jr., who has written two books about Benedict, he was an unenthusiastic member and regularly skipped meetings.
Ratzinger insisted he never fired a shot while in the military and in 1945, he deserted and returned to Traunstein, where he was briefly held in an American prisoner of war camp.
After the war, he re-entered the seminary and was ordained into the priesthood in 1951. Soon after, he received his doctorate in theology from the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.
By the end of the decade, he was lecturing as a full professor of theology at the University of Bonn.
He later moved to the University of Muenster, and by the late 1960s, was chair of dogmatic theology at the University of Tuebingen.
But he was irritated by the growing liberalism and ’60s radicalism of Tuebingen’s student body and moved to the more conservative University of Regensburg, where he eventually became dean and spent part of his time advising German bishops on matters of theology.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich, one of the largest dioceses in the world, and three months later, made him a cardinal.
Ratzinger would go on to be elected dean of the College of Cardinals 25 years later.
Ratzinger continued along a conservative path, becoming prefect of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1981 and moving to Rome to serve as Pope John Paul II’s defender of the “clear faith,” a position he held until the 2005 conclave.
His zeal in enforcing orthodoxy earned Ratzinger quite a few labels over the years.
He was called, variously, “the Hammer,” “Cardinal No” and “God’s Rottweiler.”
But some have also said he had a warm “pastoral” side that did not always come across in the media’s coverage. What he lacked in the kind of theatrical flourish that made John Paul so popular, he made up for in his devotion to pedagogy and his eloquence on matters of theology.
When describing the appeal of the seemingly stiff and stern Benedict, Allen famously told Time magazine that while people may have come to “see” John Paul, they came to “hear” Benedict. With his passing, the voice of Benedict the pope may be gone, but that of Benedict the theologian will undoubtedly live on through the many scholarly works he authored throughout his career and papacy.