VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
New York Times
December 31, 2022
By Ian Fisher and Rachel Donadio
He defined a conservative course for the Roman Catholic Church, but his papacy was noted for his struggle with the clergy sexual abuse scandal and for his unexpected resignation.
Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, a quiet scholar of diamond-hard intellect who spent much of his life enforcing church doctrine and defending tradition before shocking the Roman Catholic world by becoming the first pope in six centuries to resign, died on Saturday. He was 95.
Benedict’s death was announced by the Vatican. No cause was given. This past week, the Vatican said that Benedict’s health had taken a turn for the worse “due to advancing age.”
On Wednesday, Pope Francis asked those present at his weekly audience at the Vatican to pray for Benedict, who he said was “very ill.” He later visited him at the monastery on the Vatican City grounds where Benedict had lived since announcing his resignation in February 2013.
In that announcement, citing a loss of stamina and his “advanced age” at 85, Benedict said he was stepping down freely and “for the good of the church.” The decision, surprising the faithful and the world at large, capped a papacy of almost eight years in which his efforts to re-energize the Roman Catholic Church were often overshadowed by the unresolved sexual abuse scandal in the clergy.
After the selection of his successor that March — Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — and a temporary stay at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, Benedict moved to a convent in Vatican City. It was the first time that two pontiffs had shared the same grounds.
The two men were reportedly on good terms personally, but it was at times an awkward arrangement, and Francis moved decisively to reshape the papacy, firing or demoting many of Benedict’s traditionalist appointees and elevating the virtue of mercy over rules that Benedict had spent decades refining and enforcing.
Benedict, the uncharismatic intellectual who had largely preached to the church’s most fervent believers, was soon eclipsed by Francis, an unexpectedly popular successor who immediately sought to widen Catholicism’s appeal and to make the Vatican newly relevant in world affairs. But as Francis’ traditionalist-minded critics raised their voices in the later 2010s, they made Benedict a rallying point of their opposition, fueling fears that his resignation could promote a schism.
In early 2019, Benedict broke his post-papacy silence, issuing a 6,000-word letter that seemed at odds with his successor’s view of the sexual abuse scandals. Benedict attributed the crisis to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, secularization and an erosion of morality that he pinned on liberal theology. Francis, by contrast, saw its origins in the exaltation of authority and abuse of power in the church hierarchy.
Given his frail health at the time, however, many church watchers questioned whether Benedict had indeed written the letter or had been manipulated to issue it as a way to undercut Francis.
Benedict himself was swept up in the scandal after a January 2022 report that had been commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in Munich to investigate how the church had handled cases of sexual abuse between 1945 and 2019. The report contended that Benedict had mishandled four cases involving the sexual abuse of minors decades ago, while he was an archbishop in Germany, and that he had misled investigators in his written answers.
Two weeks after the report was made public, Benedict acknowledged in a letter that “abuses and errors” had taken place under his watch and asked for forgiveness. But he denied any misconduct.
At the time of his resignation, his decision to step down humbled and humanized a pope whose papacy had become associated with tempests. There were tangles with Jews, Muslims and Anglicans, and with progressive Catholics, who were distressed by his overtures to the most traditionalist fringes of the Catholic world.
It was a painful paradox to his supporters that the long-gathering sexual abuse crisis should finally hit the Vatican with a vengeance under Benedict, in 2010. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, charged with leading the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for defending church orthodoxy, he had been ahead of many peers in recognizing how deeply the church had been damaged by disclosures that priests around the world had sexually abused youths for decades and even longer. As early as 2005, he referred to the abuse as “filth in the church.”
Elected pope on April 19, 2005, after the death of John Paul II, Benedict went on to apologize for the abuse and met with victims, a first for the papacy. But he could not escape the reality that the church had shielded priests accused of molestation, minimized behavior that it would otherwise have deemed immoral, and kept all of it secret from the civil authorities, forestalling criminal prosecutions.
The reckoning clouded the widely held view that Benedict was the most influential intellectual force in the church in a generation.
“It’s worth stepping back for a moment and remembering that Benedict is probably the greatest scholar to rule the church since Innocent III, the brilliant jurist who served from 1198 to 1216,” the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2010.
John Paul II had won hearts, but it was Cardinal Ratzinger who defined the corrective to what he and John Paul saw as an alarming liberal shift within the church, set in motion by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
The church’s 265th pope, Benedict was the first German to hold the title in a half-millennium, and his election was a milestone toward Germany’s spiritual renewal 60 years after World War II and the Holocaust. At 78, he was also the oldest man to become pope since 1730.
The church he inherited was in crisis, the sexual abuse scandal being its most vivid manifestation. It was an institution run by a mainly European hierarchy overseeing a faithful — numbering one billion — largely residing in the developing world. And it was being torn between its ancient, insular ways and the modern world.
For the church’s liberals, Benedict represented not the answer to that crisis but the problem: an out-of-step conservative European academic. Many wondered if he would be a mere caretaker, filling the post after the long papacy of the beloved John Paul until a younger, more dynamic heir could be elevated.
He settled that question quickly. Though his shy, bookish demeanor seemed to augur a less ambitious path, he moved with force to act on an idea that he had long embraced: that the church’s answer to rising secularism and the gains of other faiths should lie less in broadening Catholicism’s appeal than in nurturing its more conservative believers, even if the cost was a smaller church.
Benedict was difficult to label ideologically. Though conservative in his religious and social views, he took what many considered to be liberal stands: promoting environmental protection; condemning the American war in Iraq; and, perhaps most baffling to conservatives, criticizing capitalism, notably during the financial crisis that erupted in 2008.
He also had an unpredictable streak, as his surprise resignation made clear. In 2010, he addressed the church’s strict ban on condoms, which had been particularly criticized during the AIDS crisis that gripped Africa. While condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, he said, “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
From the outset, Benedict was prone to making provocative statements that alienated one ethnic or religious group or another. These were then followed by clarifications or apologies. It was an unfamiliar pattern for the 2,000-year-old papacy.
In January 2009, he lifted the excommunications of four breakaway bishops who belonged to the far-right Society of Saint Pius X. One of them, Richard Williamson, had roused outrage when he said in an interview days earlier that Nazi gas chambers had never existed and that only several hundred thousand Jews had died in the Holocaust, and not as a deliberate Nazi policy.
The pope cast his decision as an effort to heal a schism in the church. His critics said it was an extreme example of his willingness to cater to the far-right Catholic fringe.
Liberals in the church had made the same complaint two years earlier, when Benedict loosened restrictions on use of the old Latin Mass. That decision angered Jewish groups as well, because it allowed the use of a Good Friday prayer that calls for the conversion of Jews.
Benedict drew more criticism in October 2009, when he eased the rules for the conversion of Anglicans. The Vatican said that it was answering the requests of Anglican traditionalists, who had opposed decisions by the Church of England to allow women into the priesthood and gay men to become bishops.
In the Williamson case, the decision to lift the excommunication only further eroded trust among Jews, which had been shaky since the start of Benedict’s papacy, when it was widely noted that the young Joseph Ratzinger had been a member of the Hitler Youth — an unwilling one, by all accounts — and a conscript in Hitler’s army. The chief rabbi of Rome threatened to cut off relations with the Vatican.
Benedict said that he had not been aware of Bishop Williamson’s remarks and apologized. He then acknowledged the depth of his mistake when he issued an extraordinary letter to the world’s bishops, suggesting that there was some substance to the accusation that the Vatican was out of touch. He promised to pay more attention to the internet, where Bishop Williamson’s remarks had circulated. But he maintained that revoking the excommunications had been a good-will measure toward church unity.
Benedict was said to have a tin ear for politics. In September 2006, at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he once taught theology, he delivered a speech quoting a medieval Byzantine emperor using the words “evil and inhuman” to describe Islam. With tensions already high after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the speech provoked an outcry in the Muslim world.
Benedict expressed regret for that reaction but did not apologize for using the words. They had to be understood as part of a treatise on religion in modern life, he said. Indeed, the speech as a whole was largely praised, but only his comments on Islam were widely remembered.
The controversies distracted from Benedict’s accomplishments. His pastoral letters, or encyclicals, on love, hope and charity were acclaimed as wise and eloquent. His promoting of what his biographer John L. Allen Jr. called “affirmative orthodoxy” emphasized the good that Catholic life could bring rather than the actions that the church forbade — a theme that stood in contrast to his laying down the law for the faithful when he was a cardinal overseeing church doctrine, drawing complaints that he was divisive.
“The question arises: Do we really want this — to live eternally?” Benedict asked in a characteristic passage of a 2007 encyclical on hope. “Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive.”
He went on to describe a heaven that is not, as he put it, “monotonous and ultimately unbearable.”
“It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists,” he said. “We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”
A pianist with a taste for Mozart, Benedict once called rock music a “vehicle of anti-religion.” (In contrast, John Paul had clapped along at a Bob Dylan concert.) He worried that Harry Potter might be a danger to young minds.
To those who saw the church as behind the times, Benedict was Exhibit A. But few of his critics disputed his articulation of what it meant to be a Roman Catholic today. He was candid in conceding a decline of faith in the increasingly secularized developed world.
The challenge before him was great, perhaps too great: to renew the Catholic faith in the West. But lacking the emotional warmth of John Paul, he did not set out to recreate the papacy as a popular, media-friendly office for general spirituality and good. Rather, in his professorial way, he pleaded for recognition that reason, science and secular values alone could not explain the human mystery. He preached a return to Catholic basics: going to Mass, adoring the Virgin Mary and declaring the truth of Christianity against the threat of “relativism,” the idea that all beliefs are equal.
He resisted calls from the church’s liberal wing to rethink the celibacy requirement in the priesthood and to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion. Better, he believed, to accept a smaller church of more orthodox believers at odds with much of the world than a watered-down faith.
His papacy did not fit into any simple boxes, however. Conservatives expressed disappointment that he had not engaged in an American-style culture war. Liberals were often surprised by a pastoral manner that sought to avoid open confrontation. His first encyclical, the highest form of papal teaching, was on love — not only God’s love for humankind, but, surprising many readers, also sexual love between married men and women.
Benedict did not shy from voicing what he regarded as uncomfortable truths about Europe’s Christian roots and about other religions, Islam in particular. In his 2006 speech at Regensburg, he said, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”
He was quoting a medieval Byzantine emperor, Benedict made clear, noting that the speech largely criticized the West for quarantining God from daily public life. But he nonetheless stoked fears about radical Islam at a time of terrorist attacks, war in Iraq and growing Muslim immigration to Europe.
Some in the Islamic world reacted with anger and, in places, radical elements committed violence. Churches in the West Bank and Gaza were firebombed, and an Italian nun in Somalia was gunned down, apparently in retaliation for the pope’s remarks.
It was not clear that Benedict had anticipated the reaction. Vatican officials, and then Benedict himself, were quick to say that he did not agree with the words he had quoted, suggesting that the Islamic faith was itself prone to violence. Less than a week after the speech, he did what few popes have ever done: He issued a public apology for something he himself had said. “The true meaning of my address in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect,” he said.
Benedict tested that willingness to talk two months later, on a trip to Turkey, his first to a Muslim country as pope. Many Turks protested the visit. Until the last minute, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister and the leader of a moderate Islamist party, refused to meet with him.
But within moments of stepping off the plane, Benedict seemed to offer an olive branch to Turkey, and thus to Muslims. Mr. Erdogan emerged from an airport meeting with the pope reporting that Benedict had given tacit blessing to Turkey’s longstanding but troubled ambition to join the European Union.
Benedict’s gesture was a reversal. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had objected to Turkey’s joining the union on the ground that the Ottoman Empire had always stood “in permanent contrast to Europe.” Conservatives in the church quickly asserted that Benedict had not softened on Islam. He continued to voice concerns about religious freedom for Christians in Muslim lands, and to express abhorrence of any violence committed in the name of God.
Still, the Vatican did not deny that the pope might have had a change of heart about the European Union because of the anger his comments in Regensburg had aroused. His tone, too, shifted. He spoke more than ever about the importance of “dialogue” between Christians and Muslims to overcome the threat of terrorism. The message was vividly delivered in Istanbul in 2006 in a visit to the Blue Mosque, a central symbol of the Ottoman defeat of Byzantine Christianity. Standing silently beside the head mufti of Istanbul, Benedict faced Mecca and prayed.
Few Vatican watchers believed that Benedict’s concerns about a radicalized Islam had changed. But after the mosque visit, many Turks expressed a warmer feeling about him, and his own words were embracing.
“During the few minutes of reflection in that place of worship, I turned to the only God of heaven and earth,” he told pilgrims and tourists at St. Peter’s the week after he returned to Rome. “May all believers see themselves as his creatures and bear witness of true brotherhood.”
Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn. His father, also named Joseph, was a rural police officer who “was transferred frequently, so we were continually on the road,” Benedict wrote in a memoir, “Milestones” (1997).
Benedict said that his father had been opposed to Hitler — enough to be another reason for the family’s repeated moves. Joseph and his wife, Maria, a cook for small inns, had two other children: Maria, born in 1921, and Georg, born in 1924.
Growing up near the Inn river surrounded by hills and woods, Joseph was stamped by the faith of rural “simple believers,” as he called them. He often visited the shrine to the Virgin Mary in nearby Altötting.
Joseph wanted to become a priest from a young age. At 5, he was one of a group of children who presented flowers to the archbishop of Munich. Afterward, he announced his intention to become a cardinal. (He later said that he had also considered being a house painter.) His brother, Georg, also became a priest.
In the same way that any understanding of John Paul has to begin with his roots in Communist Poland as Karol Jozef Wojtyla, any insight into Benedict must take into account his coming-of-age in conservative and religious Bavaria during the maelstrom of World War II. Along with the rest of the students at his school, Joseph was automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth, in 1941. Two years later, as a seminarian, he was drafted into the military, first assigned to an antiaircraft unit and later to the infantry. He was never sent to the front.
There is no evidence that he had Nazi sympathies, as some insinuated after he became pope. He deserted the army near the end of the war and spent months in an American prisoner-of-war camp before his release in June 1945.
Later, as the archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, he said little about the Holocaust or Germany’s historical guilt, though he had an important role in John Paul II’s efforts to repair the rift between Jews and Christians. Yet the war shaped his thinking: He viewed the Bavarian church as a root of opposition to the Third Reich.
On a visit to the death-camp complex at Auschwitz and Birkenau in 2006, Benedict said of Hitler’s regime, “God finally had to die, and power had to belong to man alone — to these men who thought that by force they had made themselves the masters of the world.” By exterminating Jews, he said, “they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”
Benedict believed that the only antidote to godless totalitarianism was obedience to the church — a credo that his critics said left little room for reasoned opposition inside Catholicism.
After the war, Joseph and Georg resumed their studies for the priesthood and were ordained on the same day, June 29, 1951. Joseph earned his doctorate with a dissertation on St. Augustine and his professorship with a treatise on St. Bonaventure, the medieval Italian philosopher, theologian and priest who gave the church many of its intellectual underpinnings.
Father Ratzinger’s own stature as a theologian grew while he was teaching at Freising, Bonn and Munich. Already, colleagues were saying that he was destined for great things.
In 1962, he signed on as a theological adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne at Vatican II. For young and ambitious priests of that era — Father Ratzinger was 35 — the conclave was crucial.
The council had been called that year by Pope John XXIII to attune the nearly 2,000-year-old church to the modern world. Father Ratzinger was among the reformers, albeit a careful one: He would modernize the church while respecting its traditions. During Vatican II, he exerted influence by holding seminars and writing speeches and commentaries.
Central to what many call the “Ratzinger myth” was how this reformer became one of the church’s most conservative voices. “In the imagination of some liberal critics, Ratzinger’s life story would make a script worthy of George Lucas: the young Jedi Knight who went over to the Dark Side of the Force,” Mr. Allen, his biographer, wrote in “Cardinal Ratzinger” (2000).
Father Ratzinger had sided with the Vatican II reformers on relaxing the central authority of Rome, curtailing its ability to censure theologians and dispensing with the Latin Mass, which he called “archaeological.”
Yet years later, as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was emphatic in asserting Rome’s authority, censuring theologians and advocating greater freedom to use the Latin Mass.
He denied that his views had shifted. “I see no change in my theological positions over the years,” he told Time magazine in 1993.
Still, something had changed. As the spirit of reform in the church and in the wider Western culture gained momentum in the 1960s, he began to see Europe as strangled by secularism and the church’s role in public life as diminished. The gentle reforms he saw as necessary in Vatican II had taken an unintended direction.
He was especially troubled by student demonstrations at the University of Tübingen, where he arrived to teach in 1966 with the reputation of a reformer, having been recruited by the Rev. Hans Küng, a liberal theologian.
“Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations,” Benedict wrote in his memoirs. The students, calling for a democratization of the church, directed venom at Father Ratzinger himself. Some of his own students chanted, “Accursed be Jesus!” The protests, spreading across Europe in 1968, shocked him.
That same year, Father Ratzinger published what is widely considered his most important theological work, “Introduction to Christianity,” which many priests in Rome say was fundamental to their spiritual development. In that book, he argued for belief not as a mystical experience but as something inseparable from reason and doubt, taking seriously the element of doubt in the belief of God.
“Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world,” he wrote in one celebrated passage. “In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”
In 1969, he moved from Tübingen to the calmer and more conservative new university at Regensburg, near his hometown, where his brother was a priest and choir leader. In 1977, Pope Paul VI named Father Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and Freising. Later that year, he was named a cardinal, the top cadre of the church from which popes are selected.
More than a year later, another conservative, Cardinal Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II. In 1981, John Paul summoned Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome to take up one of the church’s most important jobs: prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the defender of church orthodoxy. Cardinal Ratzinger assumed the post full time the next year.
With John Paul’s blessing, the church embraced an orthodoxy that Cardinal Ratzinger largely defined. His office moved against dissenting theologians; spoke out against homosexuality, birth control and abortion; and questioned the validity of other faiths.
The central battle was over the liberation theology movement in Latin America. Many Catholic leaders and theologians there viewed Christ as the savior of the poor and the faith as an agent for a more just society. But the movement’s Marxist leanings endeared it neither to John Paul, the Pole who opposed communism, nor to Cardinal Ratzinger, after his experience with student radicals in the 1960s.
Cardinal Ratzinger saw Christ’s mission as offering not “merely earthly hope,” he wrote, but also the salvation of souls.
He took up the theme again in 2007, as pope, in his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which he showed little patience for the inequities of capitalism but nonetheless said that Christ had not been primarily a social reformer.
His office censured several leading proponents of liberation theology, and by the early 1990s the movement was considered defeated.
Scores of theologians and others came under formal criticism during Cardinal Ratzinger’s time overseeing doctrinal affairs, among them the priests Charles E. Curran, Edward Schillebeeckx, Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight. “The congregation’s inquisitional procedures are indefensible,” the Jesuit-run magazine America editorialized in 2001.
The congregation’s delving into social issues provoked similar protests. In 1986, liberal critics objected to a document on pastoral care of homosexuals that discussed homosexuality as an inclination “toward an intrinsic moral evil” and as “an objective disorder.”
Cardinal Ratzinger himself caused dissent by issuing a document in 2000 in which he posited that other faiths were “gravely deficient” in offering salvation and that Protestants were not members of “churches in the proper sense.”
A fellow German cardinal, Walter Kasper, responding to the complaints of German Protestants, said: “If my friends are offended, then so am I. It’s an unfortunate affirmation — clumsy and ambiguous.”
Cardinal Ratzinger’s defenders said that he had never denied the possibility of salvation to members of other faiths — and besides, they said, the document merely restated Catholicism’s belief that it is the one true church.
Cardinal Ratzinger found approval on both the left and the right, however, when he sought to close the divide between Catholics and Jews over accusations that the church had remained silent, or at best passive, when Jews were deported and killed during World War II.
He went on to become the Vatican’s point man in 2001 in the priesthood’s mounting sexual abuse crisis. His office became flooded with case files from bishops seeking church trials for priests accused of pedophilia, and every Friday he would read a stack of them, a routine he called “our Friday penance,” his associates said.
In one notable instance, Cardinal Ratzinger reopened a case against Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest who had founded the conservative Legionaries of Christ and who had been accused by former seminarians of molesting them when they were 10 to 16 years old. In 2006, a year after Benedict became pope, Father Maciel was stripped of his public ministry. He died in 2008, and it was later alleged that he had had affairs with women and fathered children.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said of Cardinal Ratzinger’s handling of the case, “That was, in fact, action, not words, so we want to give him credit where credit is due.”
In the days after John Paul’s death, in April 2005, no cardinal had more stature in the Vatican than Cardinal Ratzinger, and as the dean of the College of Cardinals, he was at the center of the emotional transition to the election of a successor.
With three million or more pilgrims flooding Rome to pay tribute to John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the funeral Mass, attended by kings, queens and some 70 heads of state, including President George W. Bush.
Even so, among the Vatican cognoscenti, there was no shortage of reasons that he could not become John Paul’s successor: He was too old. He was divisive. He did not have John Paul’s magnetism. He symbolized the church’s European past, not its developing-world future.
After the funeral, the question among many in the church was how to harness what they called the spirit of John Paul. Should his successor reach out to a world that had grown distant from the church, or should he first look within the church to firm up its foundations?
Cardinal Ratzinger delivered his answer just before the papal conclave, the cardinals’ closed meeting in the Sistine Chapel to select a new pope. In a speech that was said to have stunned many of those present, he asserted that a “dictatorship of relativism” had taken hold in the modern world, one that “recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s own ego and one’s own desires as the final measure.”
An aide called it a “hold on to your hats” moment. Cardinal Ratzinger was putting his colleagues on notice that if they chose him he would make no concessions to the modern secular spirit.
Just over a day later, on April 19, 2005, in one of the shortest conclaves in modern history, puffs of white smoke rose from a chimney pipe in St. Peter’s Square, signaling that a new pope had been elected. Within an hour, he appeared on its loggia before hundreds of thousands of onlookers and announced his name, Benedict XVI. The ready-made robes placed on him covered a decidedly unpapal black sweater — one piece of evidence, a top Vatican official said, that he had not expected to be elected.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” he said to the crowd, “after the great pope, John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” Many cheered, chanting “Ben-ne-det-to!” Others stood in silence. The most polarizing of cardinals had become the 265th pope.
Not all cardinals were pleased. One referred to the “they” who had elected Cardinal Ratzinger; another skipped the cardinals’ traditional dinner after the election. There was no question, however, that the cardinals had chosen one of the church’s most commanding figures.
“For the second conclave in a row, the cardinals had picked the smartest man in the room,” David Gibson wrote in his book “The Rule of Benedict” (2006). “They tried to find an alternative to Ratzinger, but they couldn’t.”
The symbolism in Benedict’s choice of name was clear to many Vatican experts: Benedict of Norcia, a fifth-century monk, had founded monasteries that spread Christianity in Europe atop the embers of the Roman Empire. The new Benedict would seek to re-evangelize a Europe that had lost its faith.
Not only liberals were wary of the selection; Benedict’s older brother, Georg, was, too. “I’m not very happy,” he told reporters. “He’s OK, and his health is good. I just wish for him that his health holds out and that his office isn’t a worry and a nuisance to him.”
Days earlier it had been reported, though never confirmed, that Benedict had been stricken by two small strokes. Georg suggested that his brother also had heart trouble. (The Rev. Georg Ratzinger died in 2020 at 96.)
Whatever the truth was, the bookish new pope plainly did not have the early vigor of John Paul II, a skier, swimmer and soccer player who had been elected at 58. Benedict, 78, announced that he would not travel as much as John Paul had.
There were hints that the new papacy would try to push the church toward still more conservative ground. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest who edited the magazine America, was forced from his job because he had published articles critical of church positions. Benedict endorsed an ultimately successful campaign by the Italian clergy to kill a referendum that would have liberalized Italian laws on assisted fertility treatments.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a former student of Professor Ratzinger’s, wrote an opinion article for The New York Times suggesting that belief in evolution might be incompatible with the Catholic faith. A Vatican directive not only condemned homosexual acts among Catholic seminarians; it also seemed to bar from the priesthood candidates who felt they were gay but who were nonetheless celibate. And the Vatican under Benedict set in motion two separate investigations of American nuns, effectively acting to rein in what was seen as disobedience.
For Benedict, the main concern was perhaps best summed up by the British historian Alfred J. Toynbee, whom Benedict often quoted: “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” Benedict saw the spread of secularism as a slow spiritual suicide, and he found his primary mission in trying to stop it. His solution was also borrowed from Toynbee: the notion of the “creative minority” — small groups of nonconformists with the capacity to reinvigorate an entire culture.
Benedict’s first trip as pope outside Italy, to Cologne, Germany, in August 2005, seemed an attempt to cultivate that creative minority. The event was World Youth Day, attended by hundreds of thousands of young Catholics. Instead of lecturing them about sex or morality, Benedict urged them to see that their lives would be enriched by faith rather than diminished by an ancient set of prohibitions.
“Open wide your hearts to God!” he said while floating on a boat down the Rhine, the banks lined with young people. “Let yourself be surprised by Christ!”
In January 2006, Benedict issued his first encyclical, “God Is Love,” in which he endorsed love between man and woman, including erotic love, if within marriage and for the purpose of creating children. He conceded that Christianity had “often been criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of that sort have always existed.”
Benedict began shedding his awkwardness in his second year as pope, when he would shush crowds cheering for him and even seemed to enjoy his public role at times.
He also began concentrating more on diplomacy, notably with China, which did not have relations with the Vatican or recognize papal authority over Chinese Catholics. There were small advances, but they were overwhelmed by resistance on both sides. The Chinese stepped up appointments of bishops without the Vatican’s approval; in February 2006, Benedict angered the Chinese by elevating Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, a fierce critic of the government, to the College of Cardinals.
Despite his criticism of Islam, Benedict disappointed some conservative followers in the early years of his papacy by calling for a viable Palestinian state and questioning military operations by Israel that killed civilians. In 2009, he met in Bethlehem with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and visited the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank, where he said Palestinians longed to live “in a homeland of their own.”
Benedict also tried to improve relations with the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians, opening private lines to the Russian Orthodox Church and meeting in Turkey in 2006 with Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Istanbul and spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide.
That was the year Benedict returned to Bavaria and, at his old university in Regensburg, delivered the speech in which he seemed to suggest that Islam was distant from reason and prone to violence. In the anger that followed, less attention was paid to the greater part of the speech, a distillation of Benedict’s thought about reason and the West.
The West, he said, had defined reason as a thing apart from God and had therefore walled off God from everyday life. This was a mistake, he said, leaving the West incapable of talking to cultures — Islam was implied — for whom faith was fundamental.
Benedict struck similar chords in 2007 on a trip to Latin America. In Brazil, a once solidly Catholic country where evangelical Protestants had lured millions away from the church with promises of a more vibrant and relevant faith, he attacked communism and capitalism alike, asserting that both ideologies lacked a spiritual center.
His message was all but drowned out, however, by statements that forced the Vatican into the unaccustomed position of damage control.
In a news conference on the plane to Brazil, he had appeared to agree with a decision by Mexican bishops to excommunicate lawmakers who favored loosened restrictions on abortion. The Vatican was aware of the impact the statement could have on Catholic Mexican politicians who either favored or did not actively oppose abortion-rights laws, and it changed the official transcript of his comments. The pope, it said, was speaking generally about church doctrine, not specifically about Mexico.
Then, in comments in Aparecida, Brazil, he said there had been no forced conversions of Indigenous people in the early years of European colonization. Indian groups and others protested, and he later issued a clarification. “It is not possible to forget the sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the Indigenous population,” he said to Ash Wednesday pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.
In July 2007, Benedict moved ahead in relaxing rules governing the Latin Mass — a concession to traditionalists, who had opposed the Vatican II decision allowing Mass to be said in vernacular languages. The pope was specifically reaching out to the Society of Saint Pius X, the ultraconservative group that John Paul had excommunicated in 1988.
Jewish groups were outraged because the Latin Mass included a prayer calling for the conversion of Jews. The Anti-Defamation League called it a “body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations.” Many Catholics worried that Benedict was undermining Vatican II reforms. Benedict, in a letter, reaffirmed his support for Vatican II.
Against this backdrop, in April 2008, Benedict made his first trip to the United States, home to 65 million Catholics. Part of the trip’s goal, said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, was to dispel the idea among Americans that Benedict was “this tough, this inhuman, person.”
The pope aimed to address the sexual abuse scandal that had forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Boston, the scandal’s epicenter. He went far beyond expectations, apologizing several times and meeting with victims.
Greeted at the airport in New York by President Bush, the pope visited ground zero and said Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and at Yankee Stadium for 60,000 people.
The glow from his American visit — he also traveled to Washington — faded in January 2009, when Benedict precipitated his papacy’s deepest crisis by lifting the excommunications of four schismatic bishops, members of the Society of Saint Pius X. Among them was Bishop Williamson, who had not only denied the extent of the Holocaust but also contended that the United States had staged the Sept. 11 attacks as a pretext to invade Afghanistan.
The bishops’ rehabilitation gave Jewish groups new cause for outrage, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany asked the pope to clarify his views on the Holocaust. Benedict’s aide on Jewish affairs, the influential Cardinal Kasper, said that he had not been consulted on the decision.
Even supporters were at a loss. They gave Benedict the benefit of the doubt for sincerely wishing to avoid a schism, but many said that he had gone too far in appeasing a small number of hard-right rejectionists.
The bad publicity continued. In March, on his first trip to Africa, Benedict provoked new criticism when he said that condoms were not the answer to the continent’s AIDS crisis. Public health advocates complained not only that he had repeated the church’s long-held opposition to condom use, even as a way to fight the AIDS epidemic, but also that he had gone even further by saying that the distribution of condoms “aggravates” the problem.
That position, said Rebecca Hodes of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, revealed that “religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”
Benedict did not apologize. He suggested that he was comfortable in the knowledge that he had correctly interpreted the teachings of the church as its steward.
(A year and a half later he would revise his position — and jolt conservatives — by acknowledging that the need to prevent diseases like AIDS could outweigh the church’s opposition to the use of condoms. He continued to assert, however, that there was no justification for using condoms to prevent pregnancy.)
A trip to Israel and Jordan in May 2009 gave Benedict no respite from his detractors. After speaking about the evils of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, he was criticized in the Israeli press for not speaking personally as a German.
Father Reese, the Jesuit priest who had edited the magazine America, wrote, “The sad thing is that Pope Benedict is saying and doing many great things, but these media disasters are undermining his papacy.”
“His words about peace, justice, refugees and the economic crisis are not being heard,” Father Reese added.
In 2010, the sexual abuse scandals went global, surfacing across Europe as well as in Brazil, Chile and India. The police investigated; bishops resigned.
In the midst of it, a case that Benedict himself had mishandled years ago in Germany came to light.
In 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich, he had permitted a priest undergoing psychological treatment for abusing children to be transferred to another parish. The priest abused more victims there and was convicted in 1986. But when the story broke in 2010, it emerged that he had been allowed to return to the ministry and was still serving in a parish.
Defending Benedict, the Vatican said that his assistant in the archdiocese had been responsible. But archdiocese documents revealed that Benedict had led a meeting and was copied on a memo in which the priest’s assignment was discussed.
Some Vatican officials cast the news media coverage as anti-Catholic persecution, but Benedict tried to respond pastorally. He met with abuse victims on a trip to Malta; in a letter, he apologized to victims and their families in Ireland for the “sinful and criminal acts” committed by priests; and on a trip to Portugal in 2010, he acknowledged the church’s failings as the Vatican sought to toughen penalties against abusers.
Then, in the year before Benedict’s resignation, an Italian investigative journalist published a book based on insider documents detailing infighting, corruption and a power struggle over the Vatican bank. The documents, it turned out, had been stolen and copied by the pope’s butler. The man was sentenced to prison, but he was then pardoned by Benedict.
Benedict’s last act as pope, resigning, was by most reckonings his most radical; it was something no pope had done since 1415, when Gregory XII stepped down amid a leadership crisis in the church known as the Western Schism.
There had been hints that he might take that step. In a book-length interview in 2010, Benedict had indicated that he might consider resigning if he no longer felt up to the job.
Benedict formally left the public eye on Feb. 28, 2013, when he was taken by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo. There he appeared at a window, a grandfatherly figure with snowy white hair, and wished the faithful good night, saying, “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.”
Laurie Goodstein, Elisabetta Povoledo and Jason Horowitz contributed reporting.
Rachel Donadio is the European culture correspondent. She joined The Times in 2004 as a reporter-editor with the Book Review. She has also been the Rome bureau chief, and is now based in Paris. @RachelDonadio