Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI gives a blessing after leading a prayer service in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Oct. 31, 2012. CNS photo

Few people in modern times have influenced the Catholic Church as deeply or as long as Pope Benedict XVI. As a theologian at the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, and especially as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics from 2005 until his upcoming resignation, which he announced Feb. 11, he has had a key role in determining how the Church would view itself and interact with society. 

The 85-year-old Pope Benedict, who will step down from the Petrine office Feb. 28, may have been the first working theologian since St. Gregory the Great (590-604) to occupy that most bully of pulpits, the papacy. If ideas have consequences, he has been one of the genuinely consequential figures of his time, repeatedly shaping the agenda of discourse in and out of the Church and setting the terms of debate. 

Often depicted as a bookish scholar most comfortable in the library and classroom, Joseph Ratzinger nevertheless was a witness to historic events even before he became pope: the rise of Nazism and World War II during his childhood and youth; the Second Vatican Council as a rising theologian; the pontificate of Pope John Paul II after he’d become a mature thinker and a mover and shaker in the Church.

Engagement with faith

On April 19, 2005, in the fourth round of balloting in a two-day conclave, his fellow cardinals chose him to succeed Pope John Paul. As 265th in a line extending back to St. Peter, he took the name Benedict, recalling Benedict XV, the World War I pope of peace, and St. Benedict of Nursia, sixth-century founder of Western monasticism. 

By the Numbers
3 - Number of encyclicals Pope Benedict XVI has written: Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”); Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope); Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).  
4 - Number of post-synodal apostolic exhortations: Sacramentum Caritatis on the Eucharist; Verbum Domini on Scriptures; Africae Munus on the Church in Africa; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente on the Church in the Middle East.
24 - Apostolic journeys outside of Italy, including Cologne, Germany, in 2005 for World Youth Day; the United States in 2008; and Lebanon in 2012.
30 - Number of trips within Italy.

On the conclave’s eve, speaking as dean of the College of Cardinals, he addressed his peers in terms that foreshadowed his pontificate. Lashing out at the “dictatorship of relativism” that he saw threatening the world and the Church, he contrasted the systematic denial of permanent and universal truth with “mature adult faith … deeply rooted in friendship with Christ” in which pastors should guide their people. This would be his central project as pope for nearly eight years. 

Among other things, that meant healing what he saw as unacceptable breaks with Church tradition occurring since Vatican II. In doctrine, liturgy and other areas, Pope Benedict sought to restore the Church’s living continuity with its past as well as its future. 

To that end, he placed the New Evangelization at the heart of his pontificate. This effort, launched by Pope John Paul and enthusiastically continued by Pope Benedict, sought to reignite the flame of Christian faith in places where secularization had caused it to grow dim — Europe, North America and the rest of the developed world. 

The pontiff spoke and wrote repeatedly about the New Evangelization, established a permanent office in the Roman Curia to deal with the subject, and convened an assembly of the world Synod of Bishops on the theme last October. The Year of Faith that he proclaimed for the Church from last October to this November is similarly part of a dual program joining a revival of faith with a revival of enthusiasm for spreading it. 

Pope Benedict’s complex agenda combining appreciation of the Christian past and engagement with the Church’s present and future sometimes has been controversial. That was the case with his decisions to make the pre-Vatican II “Tridentine” form of the Mass more accessible, seek reconciliation with ultra-traditionalist followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and offer traditionalist Anglicans a form of corporate reunion with Rome. 

What the critics commonly failed to recognize, however, was that moves like these, seen in historical context, were themselves notably innovative.

Formative years

Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927, in the village of Marktl am Inn in eastern Bavaria, the son of Joseph and Maria Ratzinger. In later years he looked back fondly to growing up in a devout Catholic family embedded in the culture of Bavarian Catholicism. His older brother Georg also was to become a priest and director of the Regensburg cathedral choir. His sister Maria was his housekeeper until her death in 1991. 

Father Joseph Ratzinger is seen with Dominican Father Yves Congar during the Second Vatican Council. Father Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was a theological adviser at the council. CNS

The rise of Nazism was a shock to the family. The elder Ratzinger, a police official, despised the Nazis, and the Ratzingers moved several times so he would not have to collaborate with them. In 1941 a cousin afflicted with Down syndrome was killed as part of the Nazi eugenics program. 

In 1939 young Joseph entered the minor seminary in Traunstein to study for the priesthood. Two years later, at age 14, he grudgingly enrolled in the Hitler Youth organization as required by law, but he dropped out as soon as he could. 

During World War II he was drafted into an antiaircraft unit and later into the infantry, but as the German war effort crumbled he quit training and went home. Even so, he spent several postwar months in an Allied camp for former soldiers. 

He and Georg returned to the seminary in 1945, and in 1947 he entered the University of Munich to study theology. He and his brother were ordained as priests by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich on June 29, 1951. He received his doctorate in 1953, and, after further work to qualify for a professorship, became professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn in 1959.

Second Vatican Council

That was the year Pope John XXIII declared his intention to convoke an ecumenical council bringing together the bishops of the world. Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne selected the young scholar as his peritus — theological adviser — in connection with the event. 

Pope Benedict XVI
The new Pope Benedict XVI greets the world from St. Peter's Basilica after his election April 19, 2005. He was 78 at the time. The German pope, now age 85, will resign Feb 28. CNS

Cardinal Frings was one of Vatican II’s leading figures, and in the years 1962 to 1965 Father Ratzinger was one of the theologians at the center of its deliberations. Together with colleagues such as Fathers Karl Rahner, S.J., Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., Yves Congar, O.P., and Henri de Lubac, S.J., he helped shape documents profoundly altering the Church’s self-understanding as well as its relationship with other churches and the secular world. 

By the council’s end, nevertheless, he had begun to distance himself from Father Rahner’s influence. Several years later, disagreements about the meaning of Vatican II led him to break with progressive theologians identified with the journal Concilium, and in 1972 he joined scholars like Father Hans Urs von Balthasar and Father de Lubac in founding a new theological journal, Communio, as a forum for a different point of view. 

Critics later would accuse him of joining Pope John Paul II in obstructing the implementation of Vatican II, but he and Pope John Paul saw it differently. He set out his position in a Christmas 2005 talk to the Roman Curia that is considered one of the key policy statements of his pontificate. In it he contrasted two conflicting ways of understanding the council — the “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture” and the “hermeneutics of reform.” (Hermeneutics is a system for interpreting texts, especially sacred Scripture.) 

The first approach, he said, sees Vatican II as a radical break with tradition, considers the council documents to be merely interim compromise statements, and holds that the “spirit” of the council counts for more than what it said. This view or something very like it is in fact widely held among Catholic theologians of the progressive school today. 

By contrast, he said, those committed to reform see the council in continuity with the Church’s tradition, which it proceeded to develop in ways suited to contemporary needs. “If we read and accept [Vatican II] by a correct interpretation,” Pope Benedict said, “it can become a great force in the ever necessary renewal of the Church.” 

Much earlier, in the late 1960s, he had experienced a turning point in his career provoked by the Marxist-tinged student revolt then erupting on German campuses while he was teaching at the University of Tubingen. Later he wrote that what he saw happening then “made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the council.”

Vatican cardinal

From Tubingen he moved in 1969 to the University of Regensburg. In 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Munich. He was consecrated March 24, 1977, and just 30 days later was made a cardinal. 

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate Mass at Nationals Park in Washington in 2008. The pope announced Feb. 11 that he will resign at the end of the month. CNS

Having earlier declined an offer to become prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, in November 1981 he accepted Pope John Paul’s invitation to succeed Cardinal Franjo Seper as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for promoting and upholding Catholic doctrine. Starting in 2001, the CDF has also had jurisdiction over clergy sex abuse cases. 

In his capacity as prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger became one of Pope John Paul’s closest collaborators. He supervised the writing of many official documents on issues of the day ranging from bioethics and homosexuality to national conferences of bishops and the obligations of Catholic politicians and citizens. 

Among these documents were two major critiques of the theology of liberation, which at that time was identified especially with Latin American thinkers and seen by some as a rationale for social revolution as well as upheaval in the Church.  

Appearing in 1984 and 1986, respectively, the CDF documents underlined the unacceptability of Marxist elements of liberationist thought including its endorsement of a version of class conflict even within the Church and its emphasis on a utopian vision of this-worldly social change. In the Christian understanding, Cardinal Ratzinger insisted, “liberation is first and foremost liberation from sin.” 

In another much-noted action of its Ratzinger years, the doctrinal congregation concluded that views held and taught by the dissenting American moralist Father Charles Curran were contrary to the doctrine of the Church and rendered him unfit to remain on the pontifically chartered theological faculty of The Catholic University of America. Father Curran left Catholic University in 1986. 

From 1986 to 1992 Cardinal Ratzinger headed a commission preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Though opposed by Church liberals at the time, the project to produce the Church’s first general catechism in four centuries is now generally regarded as the major catechetical achievement of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The catechism was published in 1992. 

Also of concern to the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger were views of some theologians that were thought to undermine faith in the uniqueness and salvific necessity of Christ and Christianity by placing them on a level with other religions. Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus”), published by the CDF in 2000, was attacked in some quarters for saying other religious bodies and churches were lacking in comparison with the Catholic Church. But, with Ratzinger now pope, its central points were reaffirmed in another CDF document in 2007. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw a continuing stream of publications and lectures by Cardinal Ratzinger, including several book-length interviews. “The Ratzinger Report,” a scathing critique of contemporary aberrations in Catholicism published in 1985, is the best known of these and has had a broad impact on discourse within the Church.

Pastoral pontiff

Against this background, many observers expected that, upon becoming pope, he would be a stern enforcer of doctrinal purity. But the pontificate was in some ways a surprise, with Pope Benedict presenting a kindly, gentle face to the world and pursuing a notably pastoral line in much he said and did.  

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI venerates a crucifix as he leads the Good Friday service in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican April 6, 2012. CNS

Insisting he was the same person he’d always been, he nevertheless told a German television interviewer in 2006, “I am happy that certain aspects that were not noticed at first are now coming into the open.” 

Those aspects became dramatically visible in two surprise meetings within months of his election — one in August 2005 with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X made up of followers of the late, excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre; the other a month later with longtime intellectual adversary Father Kung. 

The meeting with Father Kung produced few tangible results. The project of reconciling the SSPX led to theological discussions between its representatives and representatives of the Holy See. 

But controversy erupted in January 2009 when it came to light that one of four SSPX bishops whose excommunications the pope had lifted was a Holocaust denier — something unknown to Pope Benedict. The office responsible for contacts with the SSPX thereupon was transferred to the doctrinal congregation while the elderly cardinal who’d previously headed it retired. 

In October 2009 the Vatican startled many people by announcing that Pope Benedict XVI had approved a new procedure making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to enter into full communion with Rome. Critics accused the Pope of fishing in the troubled waters of the Anglican Communion, roiled by disputes over women bishops and priests, homosexuality and other issues. But Anglicans affected by the decision called it a generous pastoral gesture.

Reform of the reform

Long before becoming pope, Benedict XVI criticized some liturgical innovations after Vatican II that he considered abuses, so it was widely expected that as pope he would undertake a “reform of the reform” to correct the problem. These expectations proved correct up to a point when in July 2007 he restored the pre-Vatican II form of the Mass in the Western Church, virtually suppressed and then marginalized in the postconciliar years, to something approaching parity with the form with which Pope Paul VI replaced it in 1970. 

Pope Benedict said that the 1970 form would remain the “ordinary” one for the Western Church, while the Tridentine form would be “extraordinary.” But he stressed that these were two different forms of the one Roman rite, and said any priest wishing to celebrate Mass in the old form could do so without further permission. Authorization also was granted to celebrate the sacraments in their pre-Vatican II forms. 

Pope Benedict similarly pressed ahead with the project, begun under Pope John Paul, to provide new vernacular translations of the Mass and other liturgical rites closer to the Latin texts than the post-Vatican II translations were. The English-language texts of the new Roman Missal approved by Pope John Paul in 2001 were introduced in the United States in 2011. 

Pope Benedict sometimes has described his pontificate as a continuation of that of his charismatic predecessor. Although he traveled less and made shorter trips, he has made 24 journeys outside Italy, including visits to Brazil, Australia and several African nations, as well as his native Germany and other European countries. Most recently, he visited Mexico and Cuba in March 2012 and Lebanon last September. 

In April 2008 he visited the United States and the United Nations on a trip that included Washington, D.C., and New York. At the United Nations, he strongly reaffirmed the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then marking its 60th anniversary. 

The pope was warmly greeted at the White House by President George W. Bush. He also met with the U.S. bishops, clergy, seminarians and religious, Catholic college and university presidents, representatives of the Jewish community and other religious bodies, and, in the visit’s emotional highlight, victims of clergy sex abuse. 

Less than a year later, in July 2009, Pope Benedict gave newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama a cordial welcome at the Vatican. But in November 2011, speaking to American bishops making ad limina visits to the Holy See, he urged U.S. Catholics to resist growing government infringements of religious liberty. This was a clear reference to new rules proposed by the Obama administration requiring church institutions to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs under Obama’s ambitious health care reform. 

While Pope Benedict spoke and published less than Pope John Paul had done in his early years and generally reserved more private time to himself, the crowds attending public papal events were even larger than in Pope John Paul’s time. He has remained a prolific writer, and in March 2007 published “Jesus of Nazareth,” the first volume of a projected three-volume work on Christ. Volume Two appeared in 2011 and Volume Three was published in November. 

His closest collaborator was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., whom he named Secretary of State in September 2006, thus giving him day-to-day oversight for the Vatican’s internal affairs. The pope himself appeared to take relatively little interest in administrative affairs, and internal documents that came to light in 2012 alleging abuses in the awarding of Vatican contracts seemed to signal disarray within the Holy See’s bureaucracy.

Sex abuse scandal

Disclosures of sex abuse of children by priests and its cover-up by ecclesiastical authorities — in most cases, several decades ago — dogged the Church during Pope Benedict’s pontificate. The scandal was “sometimes badly handled,” the pope told the American bishops during his 2008 visit. 

But by then similar disclosures had spread from the United States to European countries like Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom. The Church in Ireland was particularly hard hit, and the pope ordered an apostolic visitation to collect the facts about what happened as a basis for reforms. 

But the Vatican also came under fire for supposedly failing to address the problem effectively in the past. Critics charged that even Pope Benedict in his CDF years hadn’t done enough to punish offenders and root out the offense. 

As more facts came to light, however, it became clear that Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the first high-level officials of the Holy See to recognize the seriousness of the situation and to take steps to deal with it. In July 2010 the CDF published a 31-article document setting out revised procedures for dealing with offending clergy, including extending the statute of limitations from 10 years to 20 years after a victim’s 18th birthday. 

In response to another major scandal, Pope Benedict ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious institute generally known for conservatism, following disclosures of sexual misconduct by its late founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. A papal delegate was later appointed to oversee the group’s reform. 

Apostolic visitations also probed conditions in American communities of women religious, whose numbers have declined drastically in the last four decades, and in the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a liberally oriented body to which most American women’s religious superiors belong.  

Pope Benedict has been deeply distressed at the inroads on religious faith occurring in many parts of the developed world under the impact of secularization. “The great problem in the West is forgetfulness of God,” he told the Curia in 2006. And in a major address in September of that year at the University of Regensburg, where he had once taught, Pope Benedict said both Western secularism and Islam fall short of the commitment to reason — fundamental to Christianity — required for fruitful dialogue. 

When media coverage of the speech focused on a brief quote from a 15th-century Byzantine emperor saying Mohammed had introduced “only evil and inhuman” things into the world, Muslims erupted in anger. On a trip to Turkey two months later, however, Benedict spoke favorably of Turkish integration into Europe, dialogued respectfully with Islamic leaders and prayed in a historic mosque. Later he suggested that Islam faces the same challenge of adapting to post-Enlightenment modernity that the Catholic Church faced at Vatican II.

Key documents

Pope Benedict has brought his own emphases to bear on moral issues. He resisted stereotyping the Church, as if it had nothing but prohibitions to say about things like abortion and contraception. He has repeatedly decried same-sex marriage, which he sees as an assault on the integrity of marriage. “Man, in seeking to emancipate himself from his body … ends up by destroying himself,” he said. 

At the start of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), published in January 2006, Pope Benedict said something that appeared to reflect a fundamental conviction of his own life and career: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. … Since God has first loved us, love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.” 

His second encyclical, Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”), appearing in December 2007, stressed another of his central themes: When reason is separated from faith and hope, as has happened in the modern era in the West, then “man’s situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgment in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation. … Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” 

Pope Benedict’s third encyclical was published in July 2009 with the title Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). The long document addressed a range of issues, organized by the guiding principle of integral human development — the well-being and flourishing of human persons, individually and collectively, in respect to the fully panoply of human goods, physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual. Here and in other documents and statements, a notable feature of his teaching was a repeated emphasis on environmental issues, viewed in a specifically Christian perspective. 

Besides the current Year of Faith, he designated June 2008-June 2009 a Year of St. Paul, celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and June 2009-June 2010 a Year for Priests. 

On May 1, 2011, in a ceremony that drew an estimated 1 million pilgrims to the area around St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict beatified his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The previous Sept. 19, during his trip to England and Scotland, he beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century British convert and theologian whose thinking was an important influence on the Second Vatican Council.

Aging, resignation

As he grew older, Benedict cut back on his activities in order to husband his strength, but he kept up a crowded schedule of talks, liturgies, travels and writing all the same. His thinking was expressed in a homily preached in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace April 16, 2012, for a congregation of cardinals and bishops from Bavaria who had gathered for a Mass marking his 85th birthday: 

“I am in the final stage of my life journey, and I do not know what awaits me. However, I do know that the Light of God exists, that he rose again, that his light is stronger than all darkness, that the goodness of God is stronger than all the evil in this world. This helps me to continue with confidence.” 

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On Feb. 11, he made the stunning announcement that he would resign, telling a consistory of cardinals gathered at the Vatican that “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” 

“I wish to also devotedly serve the holy church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer,” he concluded.  

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Pope's Saints, Blesseds