Pope Benedict XVI Promoted Traditional Faith, Contended With Sex-Abuse Crisis

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

December 31, 2022

By Liam Maloney

German theologian made history with his papal resignation

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a scholar and longtime senior official in the Catholic Church who sought to reinvigorate Christian faith and strengthen church orthodoxy before becoming the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.

formidable theologian and arbiter of church doctrine for years under papal predecessor St. John Paul II, Benedict anchored his nearly eight-year pontificate in promoting a transcendent faith in Jesus Christ grounded in definitive truths and compatible with human reason.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he cautioned in a 2005 homily shortly before he was elected. The passage would come to be used to define much of Benedict’s reign.

A formidable theologian and arbiter of church doctrine, the pontiff anchored his nearly eight-year pontificate in promoting a traditional faith.

By contrast with his charismatic predecessor, Benedict was more comfortable leading the church with his pen and in his weekly addresses. A professor at heart—and in his early decades as a priest—he was considered one of the most eminent Catholic theologians and religious thinkers of his generation—even before John Paul appointed him as the Vatican’s doctrinal chief in 1981. He wrote more than 65 books over his lifetime.

Among his most enduring legacies, though, is his resignation. The surprise decision at once upended centuries of tradition and transformed the act of stepping down into an accepted feature of the modern papac

The pope, Joseph Alois Ratzinger of Germany, shocked the world and even his confidantes when he announced on Feb. 11, 2013, that he no longer had the strength “to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” The decision ended an often-turbulent tenure in which the shy and scholarly pope’s push to fortify the inner life of the church was marred by the spread of a clerical sex-abuse scandal around the world and other crises.

As a cardinal under John Paul, he oversaw the church’s disciplinary process for abusive clergy, successfully pushing to strengthen church laws that made it easier for the Vatican to punish abuse. But late in his postpapacy, criticism of his earlier record blotted his reputation on the subject.

In 2022, a church-sponsored probe on historical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising accused Benedict of coverup, perjury and insensitivity to abuse victims during his time as archbishop there. His lawyers rebutted the charges, saying that in none of the cases in question did the future pope know that the priests were even suspected of sexual abuse. The retired pope asked forgiveness for any “grievous fault” he might have incurred, and expressed “profound shame” for failures that occurred during his long career of leadership in the church, but he didn’t admit wrongdoing.

By his own admission, he was a reluctant leader.

Shortly after becoming pontiff in April 2005, he recalled praying to not become pope during the cardinals’ conclave that would elect him. “Evidently, this time He didn’t listen to me,” Benedict said.

Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or Pope Francis, succeeded Benedict a month after he resigned, leading to the unusual arrangement of the two papal leaders both living within Vatican walls.

They had contrasting approaches to leading the Catholic Church. Benedict sought to cultivate a core of ardent believers to re-energize Catholicism, especially among its dwindling flock in Europe, in comparison with Pope Francis’s efforts to broaden the church’s appeal by de-emphasizing doctrinal differences.

Benedict saw his defense of church teachings and sometimes controversial moves to rein in Catholics who challenged or strayed from church positions as central to his mission.

Though his traditional approach rankled the church’s more progressive wing, Benedict’s writings and homilies often carried a simple message with broader appeal: that Christianity is a religion of love and, at its heart, about the intimate encounter with Jesus Christ. His encyclicals drew praise for their accessibility and theological depth, often impressing even his detractors with their warmth and lack of rigidity.

“I wish…to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we, in turn, must share with others,” he wrote in the introduction to his first encyclical in 2005, “Deus Caritas Est,” or “God Is Love.” In it, he challenged the idea that Christianity is “opposed to the body” and spoke of human love—including sexual love—as intrinsically linked to God’s love of humankind. Such treatises were part of Benedict’s push to encourage a dialogue between religion and secular reason.

He was born April 16, 1927, into a religious family in Marktl am Inn, a village in the German Catholic stronghold of Bavaria. The future pope seemed destined for a life in the clergy: His parents were named Joseph, a policeman, and Maria, a hotel cook. He was born the day before Easter. His first step toward the priesthood came at the age of 12 in 1939, when he entered a local seminary.

Like other young Germans, he was forced to join the Hitler Youth and, later, was drafted into the German army. He abandoned the ranks during the closing weeks of World War II and, soon after, returned to the seminary with his older brother, Georg.

Coming of age in the shadow of National Socialism and the influence of his deeply Catholic father—who, according to Benedict, had equated Hitler with the Antichrist—Benedict came to view the church as a bulwark against the destabilizing forces of Nazi totalitarianism.

“From our own experience we now knew what was meant by the ‘gates of hell,’ and we could also see with our own eyes that the house built on rock had stood firm,” he wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Milestones.”

Early on, as a professor of theology at various German universities, Father Ratzinger supported the modernizing changes of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, where he served as an influential adviser.

But he later grew alarmed at what he deemed radical breaks with tradition—including dissent from orthodox teaching and improvised approaches to liturgy—made in the name of the spirit of Vatican II. He concluded that ideas of a more democratic church had led to unintended consequences, as religious vocations waned and church attendance declined.

His reversal came partly in reaction to the violence of the student movement of the late 1960s in West Germany and its embrace of ideals of the radical left. By the time Father Ratzinger became cardinal archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977, liberal Catholics were pushing for even deeper change, calling for the Vatican to open the priesthood to women and to permit birth control.

In 1981, John Paul—aiming to rein in such impulses within the church—picked then-Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to reaffirm the church’s traditional teachings.

As Catholicism’s theological watchdog, Cardinal Ratzinger soon became the standard-bearer of the church’s conservative current. His stance drew him closer to John Paul, and Cardinal Ratzinger became one of the Polish pope’s closest aides during his more than 26-year reign.

“It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture,” Cardinal Ratzinger declared in a 1984 interview.

He didn’t shy away from a burgeoning sexual-abuse crisis that would engulf his own pontificate years later.

As allegations mounted in Ireland, the U.S. and parts of Latin America, the cardinal drafted laws making it easier for the church to remove abusive priests. On Good Friday 2005, days before John Paul’s death, the future pope condemned the “filth” within the clergy.

But the work wearied Cardinal Ratzinger, who twice asked John Paul if he could step down from the role, pleas that the pontiff rejected. When John Paul died, his fellow cardinals saw him as the natural heir, electing the then-78-year-old cardinal to become the Catholic Church’s 265th pope after just four rounds of voting.

He chose his papal name partly in homage to Pope Benedict XV, who spent much of his pontificate trying to bring a peaceful end to World War I, but also to honor the sixth-century St. Benedict of Norcia, who founded a monastic movement that would become the bedrock of European Christian culture. The latter’s memory, the pope declared, was a “powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of European culture and civilization.”

But his ambitions to defend this heritage while reaching out to other faiths were often undercut by controversy.

That difficulty was evident when in a 2006 academic speech on the relationship between faith and reason, Benedict quoted an obscure medieval text deprecating the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. A wave of protests, in many cases violent, washed across the Muslim world before the pope issued a personal apology days later. During the rest of his pontificate, Benedict would seek to improve Catholic-Islamic relations with interreligious meetings aimed at encouraging dialogue between the two faiths.

His lack of media savvy and difficulties in responding to crises were perhaps most evident in his efforts to grapple with the clerical sexual-abuse crisis that rippled across Europe during his tenure.

Benedict met repeatedly with abuse victims, condemned the actions of abusive priests and issued a new set of policies for reviewing abuse cases and defrocking abusive clerics. But many abuse victims criticized him for failing to discipline church leaders who had covered up instances of abuse.

In the last years of his reign, Benedict had to navigate several embarrassments, including scandals inside the church’s central administration, the Roman Curia, which was plagued by infighting and wasteful spending. In 2012—the year before the pontiff stepped down—reams of internal Vatican documents were leaked to Italian media by the pope’s butler in what was later dubbed the Vatileaks scandal.

Among the controversies exposed by the documents was a battle for control over the Vatican’s bank, or IOR, which came under pressure by international regulators and watchdogs to step up its compliance with antimoney-laundering rules. The butler was convicted after a Vatican trial. Benedict later pardoned him.

Benedict was one of only a handful of popes to have resigned in the 2,000-year history of the church. At 85, he said he lacked the vitality and vigor needed to continue to lead the world’s more than one billion Catholics amid a particularly challenging period for the church.

“I will simply be a pilgrim on the last stop of my pilgrimage on this earth,” he told the faithful on his last day as pope.

While Benedict pledged to live the rest of his days in prayer and study, the resignation opened a host of questions, ranging from the title a former pontiff would assume—he would be known as Pope Emeritus—to the possibility that two living popes could provoke a schism in the church.

After the election of Pope Francis, Benedict retired to live in a former convent within the Vatican and only occasionally made public appearances. But his decision to assume the title of pope emeritus and continue wearing white drew criticism even from some of his conservative admirers, who worried that it could encourage the idea of a dual papacy.

The retired pope published occasional statements, including a 2016 book-length interview and a controversial 2019 essay that linked the church’s sex-abuse crisis to the 1960s sexual revolution. In January 2020, he was briefly listed as the co-author of a book defending the tradition of priestly celibacy, just as his successor pondered relaxing celibacy rules to address a priest shortage in South America’s Amazon region. Benedict asked for his name to be removed as co-author of the book. The following month, Pope Francis decided against relaxing the rules.

In retirement, Benedict had more time to play the piano, including works by Mozart.

“His music is by no means just entertainment,” said Cardinal Ratzinger before ascending to the papacy. “It contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

Benedict’s brother, Georg, who also became a priest, died in 2020. His sister, Maria, who never married and used to manage the future pope’s household, died in 1991.

Francis X. Rocca contributed to this article.

Write to Liam Moloney at liam.moloney@wsj.com