A Turbulent Tenure for a Quiet Scholar
When Benedict XVI became pope eight years ago at the age of 78, many Roman Catholic scholars predicted that he would be a caretaker. He would keep the ship sailing in the same direction as his beloved predecessor, John Paul II. And as the rare theologian who knew how to write for a broad audience, Benedict would keep the crew inspired and the sails billowing.
If written words alone could keep the church on course, Benedict would likely be viewed as a solid success. His encyclicals on love and charity and his three books on the life of Jesus were widely praised for their clarity and contribution to Catholic teaching.
But when it came to the major challenges facing the church in the real world, Benedict often appeared to carom from one crisis to the next.
He inadvertently insulted Muslims on an early trip to Germany, which resulted in riots across the Islamic world and the murder of an Italian nun in Somalia. He welcomed back a breakaway bishop who had just recorded an interview denying the facts of the Holocaust. He told reporters on the papal plane winging toward Africa that condoms had helped spread AIDS.
When the clerical sexual abuse scandal spread across Europe and exploded at Benedict’s door in 2010, Benedict met with abuse survivors and oversaw the development of new church policies to prevent abuse. But he was denounced by survivors and their advocates for never moving to discipline bishops who were caught in the cover-up.
Among the cardinals expected to vote in the conclave to elect the next pope is Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, whose decades of mishandling sexual abusers in the priesthood was recently exposed by the court-ordered release of thousands of internal church documents.
Even Pope Benedict’s attempt to reach out with a pastoral letter to the church in Ireland, worn down by revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse, left many there infuriated when he appeared to blame the nation’s spiritual disillusionment on the Irish Catholics themselves.
“It’s been the tin-ear papacy,” said Christopher M. Bellitto, chairman and associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J., who studies the papacy. “It’s been a very small, introverted papacy because that’s who he is. The pope is an introvert.”
One of the defining moments, Dr. Bellitto said, was the speech Pope Benedict gave in September 2006 at Regensburg University in Germany, in which he quoted the words of a medieval Byzantine emperor speaking of Islam: “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.”
Dr. Bellitto said: “Every professor in the universe knew exactly what he was doing, which was to start a lecture with something provocative and work off of that. But it didn’t play out that way.”
Pope Benedict later apologized for the reaction, explaining that the totality of his address was intended as “an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect,” with the Muslim world.
He followed that up by coming out in favor of admitting Turkey to the European Union, a reversal of his previous position. He later visited Turkey and prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul alongside the head mufti, a significant gesture that helped to calm the waters.
Benedict’s biggest challenge was to set a course for a church that is still divided over the meaning and legacy of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which opened the door to modern reforms.
The council resulted in changes like empowering lay people in parish life, celebrating the Mass in the local vernacular language rather than in Latin, and allowing nuns to expand their mission beyond working in church schools and hospitals.
To many Catholic traditionalists, Benedict is a hero who has reeled in the excesses of Vatican II, by promoting “the reform of the reform.”
He expanded the use of the Latin Mass used before Vatican II. And he pushed the English-speaking Catholic churches to adopt a liturgy translation more faithful to the original Latin — a change that many priests protested was awkward and alienating, but which has gradually taken hold.
In keeping with his previous post as head of the church’s doctrinal office, Benedict used his papacy to discipline those who questioned church teaching.