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ANALYSIS: With the Death of Pope Benedict XVI, Church Loses its ‘Catholic of the Century’

A man holds a copy of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper announcing the death of Pope Benedict XVI, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 31, 2022. Pope Benedict died at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

By John L. Allen Jr., Special to The Tablet

ROME — In 1997, American journalist and Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny published a biography of Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul, titled Man of the Century

By that, Kwitny didn’t necessarily mean the Polish pope was the greatest man of the 20th century, but that no one’s life story better recapitulated the great dramas of the time, from the unraveling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire his father had served as an army officer to the rise and fall of both Nazism and Soviet Communism and the emergence of a newly globalized world.

If St. John Paul was the “Man of the Century” in that Kwitnian sense, then Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was indisputably the “Catholic of the Century,” the lone figure whose life best captured the grand turning points, controversies, and shifts that defined the contours of the Catholic Church over his almost 100 years.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died on Dec. 31. He was 95 years old.

Joseph Ratzinger, the given name of Pope Benedict XVI, was never a superstar ad extra, someone who took the whole world by storm in quite the same sense as either his charismatic predecessor or his equally electric successor, Pope Francis. To the extent Ratzinger’s name or face ever penetrated outside the bounds of Catholic awareness, it was usually only as a cartoon caricature — the Panzerkardinal, the “German Shepherd,” the great “Dr. No” of Pope John Paul’s Vatican from his perch as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Those stereotypes always rang false for those who knew him because, on a personal level, you’d never meet a kinder, gentler, humbler soul. Where Pope John Paul occasionally could be imperious and Pope Francis hot-headed — and, let’s face it, both pontiffs also had a stubborn streak a mile long — Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, was eternally calm, polite, generous, and he never seemed addicted to being the center of attention.

Arguably, no public figure of the 20th century ever suffered from a sharper disjunction between his or her public image and private personality — until, that is, Pope Benedict XVI performed the single greatest act of papal humility in 600 years by voluntarily abdicating his office in 2013, making way for a very different kind of pope.

Inside the Catholic Church, he was both a superstar and a lightning rod. There was no major turning point or debate in the Church for seven decades in which he wasn’t a major protagonist — from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the liberation theology movement in the 1970s, furors over gay rights and women in the 1980s, battles over academic freedom, theological dissent and liturgy in the 1990s, religious pluralism and Christian theology regarding other religions in the 2000s, and reactions to the maverick papacy of Pope Francis in the 2010s — not to mention, of course, the fallout of the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis, where Pope Benedict’s legacy remains both debated but also extolled as the beginning of real change.

For admirers, Pope Benedict was both their intellectual champion and a living saint. Those who were close to him felt a combination of awe and tender affection usually reserved for one’s own father, forging an emotional bond and sense of family that was highly unusual by Vatican standards.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict in 2005, one of his first acts was to return to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to say goodbye to his staff. As he stood among them, the raw emotion was palpable, many with tears streaming down their faces. Photographs of the scene captured Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, at the time the Secretary of State and a scion of the “never let them see what you’re thinking” school of Vatican diplomacy, looking on in astonishment.

Yet critics felt equally passionate, seeing in him the epitome of everything about post-Vatican II Catholicism to which they objected. Even his old friend and fellow Tübingen theologian Hans Küng once accused him of being the head of the Catholic KGB and of having betrayed the reforming impulses of the council the two helped to shape.

In the end, many of those hard feelings faded after Pope Benedict resigned and went into retirement, aging and declining as time passed and attention rapidly shifted to his groundbreaking successor. There were periodic attempts to draw him into the new battles in Catholicism over the Pope Francis agenda, but Pope Benedict always resisted.

Though contemporaneity may have been sometimes cruel, history may be a kinder judge of Joseph Ratzinger. It’s entirely possible that 100 years from now, Catholics will still read his theological works, from his pioneering “Introduction to Christianity” in 1969 to his later “Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy” in 2001, and those whole generations who never knew the caricature will find themselves enchanted by the man.


Bavarian Background

Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, in a small Bavarian town called Marktl-am-Inn just across the border from Austria and the city that enchanted his youth, Salzburg. He was the youngest of three children in a lower middle-class Bavarian household, and his parents, aptly enough for a deeply Catholic family, were named Joseph and Mary. The father was a policeman, while the mother stayed at home for some periods of her life and worked outside the house as a cook during others.

Joseph’s sister, Maria, was born in 1921, and his brother Georg in 1924. Like Joseph, Georg also became a priest (they were ordained on the same day in 1951) and, also like his brother, has a passion for music. He went on to become a choir conductor, while Maria spent most of her adult life as a caretaker for her brothers, especially Joseph. She died in 1991 in the Roman apartment in the Piazza Leonina she shared with her brother, while Georg died at the family home in Regensburg in July 2020 at the age of 96. Pope Benedict’s last foray out of Rome was to visit his dying brother in June 2020.

Ratzinger grew up in a deeply Catholic Bavarian household, developed an early love for music and facility as a pianist, and never seemed to have any serious romantic relationships — though when asked at a press conference in 1997 for the launch of his pre-Vatican memoirs why he didn’t talk about past girlfriends, he jokingly replied, “I had to keep the manuscript to 100 pages.” (As a footnote, Ratzinger never got enough credit for his lively sense of humor, which was legendary among people who knew him well.)

The main historical shadow that hung over the future pope’s youth was the rise of National Socialism. So often it became almost impossible to dislodge, he was described in media accounts as a “former member of the Hitler Youth,” in an obvious attempt to link him to admiration for fascism. In reality, the exact opposite was true: His father took a series of less significant posts to escape being subsumed by the Brownshirts and eventually took early retirement. The family was strongly anti-Nazi, and Ratzinger himself was conscripted into the Hitler Youth in 1941 only when membership became mandatory for young German males of his age. He never participated, and a sympathetic teacher allowed him to continue taking lessons despite the fact he refused to carry a membership card.

Eventually, Ratzinger was drafted into the German Wehrmacht, and he finished his experience of WWII with a brief period as history’s only pope who was once an American prisoner of war. Intellectually, he came away convinced that only those Christians clear about their core convictions were strong enough to withstand the pressures to assimilate applied by the Nazi regime.

From an early age, Ratzinger was fascinated by Catholic liturgy and theology. After the war, he resumed his studies, earned a doctorate in theology, and began a teaching career that would take him to a series of German universities: Freising, Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and eventually the new University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria.

During the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger served as a peritus, or theological expert, of Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, one of the leaders of the reform majority. Ironically, Ratzinger was the ghostwriter of a speech Frings delivered on the floor of the council calling the “methods and behavior” of the Holy Office, today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a “cause of scandal to the world.” It was the office Ratzinger himself would eventually lead, where he faced eerily similar accusations.

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed the Archbishop of Munich by Pope Paul VI, now St. Paul VI. He participated in the two conclaves of 1978, then oversaw a successful visit of the new Pope John Paul II to Munich. Quickly, the Polish pope asked Archbishop Ratzinger to come to Rome to head the Congregation for Catholic Education. He demurred, saying he hadn’t been in Munich long enough, but when John Paul returned in 1981, this time offering the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he accepted.

He was the first truly first-rate theologian to occupy the post since St. Robert Bellarmine in the 16th century, and he became a force with which to be reckoned.

By the time St. John Paul died in April 2005, the cardinals who gathered for the conclave felt they had an obvious successor in the man who’d been the intellectual architect of the papacy, who could provide broad continuity, and who, because he’d been in the Vatican so long, knew where all the bodies were buried.


Great Teacher, Great Reformer, Troubled Governor

By consensus, while Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a great teaching pontiff, ecclesiastical governance on his watch often left something to be desired. Space does not permit a full listing of meltdowns and crises, but here are a few highlights:

  • The appointment in 2007, followed by the swift fall from grace, of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who had an ambiguous relationship with the Soviet-era secret police.
  • The eerily similar appointment in 2009 of an Austrian bishop who had suggested Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for the wickedness of New Orleans and who was likewise gone within days.
  • Lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist Catholic bishops in 2009, including one who denied that the Nazis used gas chambers, with little apparent regard for how that move would be perceived.
  • The surreal “Boffo case” from 2010, pivoting on the former editor of the official newspaper of the Italian bishops. (If you don’t know the story, it would take too long to explain, but trust me … Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t make this stuff up.)
  • The Vatileaks scandal of 2011-12, which featured revelations of financial corruption and cronyism and ended with the conviction and pardon of the pope’s own former butler for stealing confidential documents.
  • The eruption of a second wave of clerical sexual abuse scandals in Ireland and rippling across Europe in 2009-2010, one low point of which came when Pope Benedict’s own Dean of the College of Cardinals, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, referred to the complaints of abuse survivors as “petty gossip” during the 2010 Easter liturgy.

Less spectacularly, there was a chronic sense during the Pope Benedict years that the pope’s administrative team, led by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was occasionally out of its depth. Decisions were delayed, and when they came, the logic for how things shook out was sometimes opaque.

Despite all that, there’s also a case for Pope Benedict as a “Great Reformer” over his eight years in charge, from 2005 to 2013.

The long-delayed work of bringing the Vatican into the 21st century vis-à-vis financial administration actually began under Pope Benedict. Perhaps the single most important move Pope Benedict made was to choose, for the first time, to subject the Vatican to independent secular review in the form of the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, Moneyval.

Pope Benedict was also the pope who created a new financial watchdog unit inside the Vatican, the Financial Information Authority, and hired a serious professional to lead it: A Swiss lawyer named René Brülhart, who for the previous 10 years had led anti-money-laundering efforts in the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein. 

In so doing, Pope Benedict gave definitive answers to two nagging questions: 1) Does the Vatican owe anyone “outside the family” an explanation of how it handles its finances? 2) Does secular expertise on money management have a place in the Holy See? In both cases, Pope Benedict said “yes.”

On the clerical abuse scandals, when they erupted in the United States under St. John Paul II, the deniers had control in the Vatican, and the reformers were an embattled minority. By the end of Pope Benedict’s papacy, the situation was the exact reverse: The deniers hadn’t gone away, but they’d been driven underground.

While he was still at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who pushed for new rules to weed out abuser priests in the Pope John Paul II years and who wrote those rules into law as pope. It was also Cardinal Ratzinger who unleashed his top prosecutor, then-Msgr. Charles Scicluna, on Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, despite the cleric’s powerful network of Vatican allies, and sentenced him to a life of “prayer and penance” in 2006.

Later, Pope Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse, the first pope to apologize for the crisis in his own name, and the first pope to dedicate an entire document to the abuse crisis in his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland. Pope Benedict laicized almost 400 priests in 2011 and 2012 alone for reasons related to sex abuse, which is almost one in every 1,000 Catholic priests in the world flushed out of the system in just two years.

Although Pope Francis is rightly celebrated for his humility and simplicity, the truth is that Pope Benedict XVI contributed significantly to the “demystification” of the papal office well before Pope Francis stepped onto the scene. Here’s an example. Shortly after his election, Pope Francis returned to the Casa del Clero in Rome, where he’d been staying before the conclave in order to pack his own bag and pay his own bill, an episode that became part of his “man of the people” image. Yet Pope Benedict did much the same thing, returning to his apartment to pack up and then going around to thank the nuns who lived in the building for being good neighbors. In other words, Benedict was every bit as humble as his successor — arguably, in some ways, more so — even if that wasn’t always clear from his public image.

Finally, Pope Benedict as Pope was never the “Doctor No” people associated with his tenure as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, treated sex at length but not as a finger-wagging scold. Instead, Pope Benedict lauded human erotic love as an icon of the Trinitarian love among the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

In effect, Pope Benedict as Pope was an avatar of “affirmative orthodoxy:” Clarity on the core convictions of the faith, but always expressed in terms of what Catholicism says “yes” to rather than its more familiar “no’s.”


A Resignation That Shook the World

Of course, the single papal act with which Pope Benedict XVI will always be identified is his resignation on Feb. 11, 2013, an announcement he delivered in Latin during a consistory of cardinals: “I have come to the certainty,” Pope Benedict said that day, “that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Pope Benedict specified that his resignation would take effect on Feb. 28, 2013, at 8:00 p.m. Rome time.

That night, Pope Benedict took a helicopter from the Vatican to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, where he decided to stay during the interregnum. Vatican TV captured that ride in indelible images worthy of Federico Fellini. Pope Benedict stood on the balcony of Castel Gandolfo and vowed to be “hidden from the world” to support the new pope and the Church in prayer. Then, at the stroke of 8 p.m., the Swiss Guards, whose mission is exclusively to protect the person of the pope, withdrew from their post in front of the main entrance to be replaced by the Gendarmes, whose mission is instead to provide security for the Vatican’s physical plant.

A papacy had ended, but a life and a legacy were intact.

Following the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict remained largely out of the spotlight. However, there were few new episodes to record — a controversy over a letter the pope emeritus wrote regarding a new Vatican publication, of which officials tried (unsuccessfully) to pass off a doctored copy; another book by a fellow cardinal in which Pope Benedict was initially listed as a co-author, only for his top aide to insist that be withdrawn; a few occasions when Pope Benedict felt compelled to give short interviews rejecting claims that his resignation was compelled, or that his successor wasn’t elected in a canonically valid fashion.

None of that, however, was really Pope Benedict’s doing, and it doesn’t alter whatever final evaluation he merits.

Joseph Ratzinger was a product of his time, formation, and experience, with all the blind spots and limitations that implies. He hardly led a perfect papacy, and his theological arguments over several decades are imminently open to debate — a point, by the way, he would be the first to have acknowledged, as he did in the preface to his first book as pope, Jesus of Nazareth.

This was a kind and decent man who poured out his life in service to the Church he loved. He weathered every storm 20th- and early 21st-century Catholicism generated with good humor, serenity, and a clear sense of purpose. He was a caring father figure to those closest to him, a generous interlocutor to anyone who ever met him, a brilliant theological mind, and a writer uniquely possessed of the gift of clarity.

As epitaphs go, one could do much worse.

Requiescat in pace.

John L. Allen, Jr. is the editor of