About a decade ago, Italian journalist Giovanna Chirri was sitting in the Holy See press office covering a routine event between Pope Benedict XVI and the Cardinals. She was only half-watching the proceedings on her computer.
At the end of the meeting on Feb. 11, 2013, Benedict stayed put and spoke in Latin, still the official language of the Vatican. Ms. Chirri, who had worked for Italy’s ANSA news agency and knew Latin well, could not believe what she heard. After nearly eight years in the role, he had just announced his resignation – the first pope to do so in more than 600 years.
“He said it in Latin, and I was panicking,” she later told the Catholic News Agency. “I was short of breath, my legs were trembling. … It was a reaction to shock.”
After her global scoop was published, millions of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, along with the church itself, joined the reporter in their surprise. Popes are not supposed to step down; they are supposed to “die on the cross,” as Jesus had done when he was crucified.
Benedict – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI since his resignation – died Saturday morning at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the gardens of the Vatican City. He was 95.
His death reminded Catholics that some of the crises and problems that no doubt contributed to him calling it quits – ranging from the church’s sexual-abuse and financial scandals to the clashes between liberalism and conservatism – continue to haunt the institution today.
When he stepped down, Benedict, then already 85 years old, tacitly admitted that he was incapable of healing the church’s wounds. “I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” he said at the time. “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited.”
Many Catholics did not believe frailty had much to do with his retreat (he seemed in fairly good health for a few years after he quit). Rev. Paul Michael Haffner, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told The Globe and Mail shortly after Benedict stepped down that the time had come to no longer view the papacy as a job for life.
“With life expectancies becoming longer, the taboo surrounding resignations should not be so great if you are weak,” Father Haffner said in reference to the pope’s physical condition. Others have taken the opposite view: that his resignation broke Vatican tradition and spoke of giving up.
Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, in 1927, and archbishop of Munich until 1981, was an intellectual, conservative theologian who lacked the dynamic charm and global presence of both his predecessor, John Paul II, and his successor, Pope Francis.
The mission of John Paul, an anti-communist Pole, was seen as propelling the struggle to end the ungodliness of the Soviet empire. Since replacing Benedict, Francis, for his part, has given his pulpit a quasi-political role, speaking forcibly about social issues such as the cruelty of laissez-fair capitalism, the plight of immigrants, the existential threat of climate change and the isolating effects triggered by the digital era.
Benedict was quieter, adhering to orthodox views of Church and family values as he warned of the dangers of secularism and relativism – the latter referring to the belief that there is no absolute truth, only the “truths” that a person or a society believes to be true. He strongly opposed a proposal to ordain woman and fortified the Vatican’s view that contraception should not be allowed. When he visited Africa in 2009, he said that condoms promote the spread of HIV/AIDS and that celibacy was the better way to control the disease.
Accordingly, many Catholic women found him off-putting: “We lament the fact that Pope Benedict died without apologizing for silencing his fellow theologians and women’s ordination campaigners who dared to question his increasingly extreme positions on women’s ordained ministry,” Women’s Ordination Worldwide said in a statement Saturday.
Benedict was viewed as an academic more than a natural leader. The late German cardinal, Joachim Meisner, once described him as the “Mozart of theology,” and Benedict himself seemed to accept such a role.
“One of my weak points is perhaps a lack of resolve in governing and decision-taking,” he said in the 2016 book, Last Testament, by German journalist Peter Seewald. “In reality, I am more of a professor, a person who reflects and mediates on spiritual questions.”
But he did pay close attention to environmental issues, a theme that Francis would intensify. Benedict considered Earth a paradise on the verge of destruction – that the planet is God’s creation and should be protected as a garden for all. He talked about the “greenhouse” effect years before the term became popular. He also held eco-friendly youth rallies, and at one in Italy, he said that “courageous choices that can recreate a strong alliance between man and Earth must be made before it is too late.”
In a statement issued Saturday, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto acknowledged Benedict’s “profound insight into the mysteries of our Christian faith” as a theologian but also “his personal holiness and pastoral care for God’s people.”
“Pope Benedict took up integral human development, first elaborated by Paul VI. To develop truly, authentically, people need to treat each other as the siblings we really are, freely and generously and openly,” said Michael Czerny, the Canadian cardinal who is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in a message to The Globe.
Benedict’s term often produced headlines that he and the Vatican did not want to see. While John Paul’s and Francis’s near-constant travels often earned them glowing coverage – the former alone visited 130 countries – Benedict was a relative stay-at-home pope who often found himself battered by problems.
The big one was the sexual-abuse file. It had exploded onto the global scene in 2002, when The Boston Globe published its devastating “Spotlight” investigation into the sexual abuse of minors by priests (five of whom were criminally prosecuted). That reporting and others across the United States, Canada, Ireland and elsewhere, exposed widespread abuses and cover-ups that handed the Catholic Church a series of global, reputation-shattering scandals from which it has yet to recover.
Benedict acknowledged the sins of the church in the sexual-abuse scandals and punished many of the priests, though he did take heat from some survivors’ groups for allegedly failing to take measures that would snuff out the problem forever.
In 2008, three years into his term, he made a week-long visit to the United States, where he held the first known meeting between a pope and victims of abuse. He apologized for the scandal, as Francis would do in Rome and in Canada in 2022, when he met with victims of abuses at the largely Catholic-run Indigenous residential schools.
In 2011 and 2012 alone, Benedict defrocked almost 400 priests over claims of child abuse, more than double the level kicked out in 2008 and 2009, when the Vatican first provided such figures. At the same time, the Vatican sent another 400 cases to church tribunals or administrative offices for investigation.
“The Benedict papacy did advance the church in its handling of clerical sex abuse,” said Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst, in Religion News Services on Saturday. When Benedict’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “was assigned abuse cases, the disciplinarian tendencies that led him to police theologians allowed him to cut through canonical niceties to expel hundreds, perhaps thousands, of abusers from the priesthood.”
But his record is not entirely clean on the abuse file. In January, an investigation released by a German law firm was critical of Benedict’s handling of four cases when he was archbishop Ratzinger in Munich. The report said that, in two of those cases, the clerics committed abuses; they were criminally sanctioned but were not punished under canon law. Benedict apologized and expressed his “deep shame,” but denied any personal wrongdoing.
Then there was the Vatican leaks, or Vatileaks, scandal. The details of the scandal were leaked in 2012 to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, and exposed internal corruption, including inflated service contracts, as well as allegations of a gay clergy lobby working to foil the pope. The details seemed to prove that Benedict’s effort to clean up the bank, including creating an anti-money-laundering agency, and to stop the internal power battles had never fully succeeded.
The stress of the scandal, which resulted in mass media coverage in Italy and indictment of Benedict’s personal butler for stealing and leaking classified Vatican documents, put enormous pressure on the pope. Some Vatican watchers cited Vatileaks as a factor in his stepping down.
In the end, Benedict left the Vatican an unpopular pope, though one respected by conservative elements of the church: His “heart was in the liturgy and spirituality of the past, which attracted only a minority of Catholics, let alone those outside the church,” Father Reese said.
He no doubt will go down in Vatican history for one act – his resignation – rather than his efforts to clean up the scandals surrounding sexual abuse and financial files. But that single decision could prove revolutionary. Francis, who is 86 and largely confined to a wheelchair, has openly mused about retiring, though Vatican watchers said the prospect of two retired popes was unacceptable to both him and the Vatican.
Last summer, when he was flying back to Rome after his Canadian tour, Francis told reporters on his flight that the “door is open” to his retirement. He has described Benedict’s resignation as “courageous.” Benedict’s death may make it easier for Francis himself to not to die on the cross.