News / Europe

Pope Benedict XVI's Legacy Mixed

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square, at the Vatican October 24, 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square, at the Vatican October 24, 2012.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19th, 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger took the name of Benedict XVI and his papacy lasted almost eight years.  He resigned last month, the first pope to do so in 600 years, and experts say he leaves a mixed legacy.

Brennan Pursell, one of Benedict’s biographers, said he will be remembered first and foremost as a teacher.

“His legacy as pope will survive in his writings, above all, and his catechesis [religious/faith instruction], his encyclicals [papal letters], his various documents,” he said. “And for people who just read what's online, they can get a sense of the awesome extent of this man’s contribution to church teaching.”

Father Thomas Reece at Georgetown University, said Benedict “had very strong ideas about church doctrine, orthodoxy, church traditions.  He was not afraid to go after priests and religious and theologians who disagreed with him - basically try to silence them.”

Was Benedict a Conservative Pope?

Some experts have labeled Pope Benedict a “conservative” on such issues as contraception, gay marriages, stem cell research and married priests.

But Father Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelian Seminary in Chicago, said you cannot use political labels to describe the papacy.

“It’s not as though popes are shifting perspective on these things and we now get a liberal pope who says this and a conservative pope who says that,” said Father Barron.  “He was teaching what John Paul the Second taught, what Pope Paul VI taught, what John XXIII taught, what Pius XII taught.  There really wasn’t anything that was ‘right-wing’ about Benedict. He was in line with the great moral and doctrinal teaching of the church.”

Benedict Addresses Sex Abuse Scandal

Benedict’s papacy was rocked by the child sex-abuse scandal that surfaced during the last few years of John Paul II's papacy.

Father Barron said that was the time when Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I have heard from people here in Chicago, where I am based, people who were involved in the lay board that was investigating all this business, that Ratzinger was the one in Rome they trusted the most - who listened to them, who got [understood] the problem,” said Father Barron.  "Beginning in 2001, he would have gotten all these dossiers, he would have read all these stories.  Anyone that knew him, they have all said the same thing, that he was disgusted by what he read.  And it sort of woke him up to the gravity of the situation.  And then he did address it pretty aggressively during the years that he was head of the CDF - and then since becoming pope.”

Analysts said he instituted quicker procedures to expel from the priesthood those involved in the sex-abuse scandal.  Benedict also apologized for the abuse and met with some of the victims.

Other Miscues Mark Benedict’s Papacy

But Benedict’s papacy was also marked by several other events.  During a speech in Regensburg in September 2006, he quoted a Byzantine emperor, stating what for some Muslims was seen as an attack on Islam.  That brought protests from the Muslim world.  Later on he went to Turkey, a trip that included prayers with Istanbul’s grand mufti at the city’s Blue Mosque.

In 2009, Benedict provoked outrage when he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops, including one who denied the holocaust.

And just last October, Benedict’s butler was convicted of stealing boxes of sensitive and confidential documents from the papal chambers, providing them to newspapers. Benedict ultimately pardoned his valet.

All those examples, said many experts, were public-relations disasters.

Last month, Benedict XVI resigned, saying he did not have the strength to go on as pontiff.

Resignation Very Much Part of Benedict’s Legacy

George Ferzoco, professor of theology at Bristol University in England, said his decision is very much part of his legacy.

“The one that will have the greatest lasting effect, I believe, for the foreseeable future, certainly for the next few centuries, is that each and every time that a pope is beginning to show signs of old age, the whispers will begin immediately, "Will he do as Benedict did and avoid a slow physical decline that could affect not only his health, but the well-being of the church, and step down?”

For the next few months, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will live in Castel Gandolfo, the popes’ summer home outside Rome.  He will then move to a convent that is being refurbished in the Vatican, where he plans to devote his life to prayer and writing.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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