Updated: Sept. 16, 2010
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the Catholic Church’s 265th pope on April 19, 2005, after the death of the popular and long-serving Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI.
When the German-born Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul, many Vatican experts predicted that Benedict, a bookish scholar with a strong theological bent, would not inspire the same sort of public adoration as his predecessor. But few could have predicted that his papacy would be characterized by a series of controversies that have alienated Muslims, Jews, Anglicans and even many Roman Catholics.
The Catholic Church is now enveloped in a widening sexual abuse scandal that is quickly defining Benedict’s papacy. He is facing accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.
In 2006 Benedict enraged many Muslims, when he quoted a Byzantine emperor who called Islam “evil and inhuman,” and in January 2009 he sparked outrage across Europe when he revoked the excommunication of schismatic bishops who had denied central elements of the Holocaust.
That Benedict’s papacy has gone from crisis to crisis points to its difficulties as an ancient institution still struggling with modernity, even though the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was supposed to update the church’s relation to the world. Instead, it is facing the growing pains of a bureaucracy created in the 16th century to contend with the Protestant Reformation and the discovery of the New World. By some lights, it is still grappling with both.
On Oct. 20, 2009, in a bold move expected to cause confusion within Anglican and Catholic parishes alike, the pope approved the Vatican’s decision to make it easier forAnglicans to convert. Many Anglicans have been uncomfortable with the Church of England’s acceptance of women priests and openly gay bishops
Before becoming pope, Benedict had expressed his ideas with force over many years in dozens of books and lectures.
Central to those ideas is how the Catholic church — and religious belief generally — finds its place in a modern, secular society. His own answer has been to rein in what he sees as the excesses in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which were aimed at bringing the church closer to ordinary Catholic life. He encourages a church of the most orthodox believers — the better, he believes, to ensure the church’s survival in what he believes is a hostile culture as mass attendance has declined steeply in developed countries.
His many critics in the church call his approach narrow and regressive, removing it from life as it is actually lived and stifling a debate they say would move the church forward as it grapples with a global role in a multicultural world.
In general, the pope’s actions in office have tended more toward pleasing the church’s conservative wing, easing restrictions on saying the Latin mass and restating his contentious belief that Catholicism is the only “true” church.
Fallout from Abuse Scandals
Benedict’s central goals of fortifying the church and fighting secularism in Europe have been threatened by hundreds of new allegations of sexual abuse by priests surfacing throughout Europe and the United States.
Benedict himself was drawn into an abuse scandal in his native Germany. A senior church official in early 2010 acknowledged that a German archdiocese had made “serious mistakes” in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop.
The archdiocese said a priest, who was accused of molesting boys, was given therapy in 1980 and later allowed to resume pastoral duties before committing further abuse and being prosecuted and convicted. Benedict, who at the time headed the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, had approved the priest’s transfer for therapy. The priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, has a trail of accusations against him that suggest a pattern of abuse of over two decades.
On May 27, 2010, a special investigator in Germany released a report saying that 205 former students claimed they had been abused in Jesuit schools, including at the prestigious Canisius-Kolleg in Berlin.
The scandal rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland in 2009 when the Irish government released two wide-ranging and scathing reports. One report found systemic abuse in church-run schools; another said the church and the police in Ireland had systematically colluded in covering up decades of sexual abuse by priests in Dublin.
In one of his most concrete actions since the scandal began, Benedict on May 31, 2010, appointed a high-profile team of prelates, including the archbishop of New York, to investigate Irish dioceses and seminaries.
Experts said the scandal has cast a shadow over the Vatican and could undermine Benedict’s moral authority. As head of the Vatican’s main doctrinal arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he led Vatican investigations into abuse for four years before assuming the papacy in 2005.
In another case, documents emerged in March 2010 that top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit,
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.
The abuse scandals have put to the test a Vatican culture of protecting its own even in the face of crimes against civil and canon law.
Strongly condemning the sexual abuse crisis, Benedict on May 11 said that the “sins inside the church” posed the greatest threat to the church, adding that “forgiveness does not substitute for justice.”
In placing the blame for sex abuse directly on the church, Benedict appeared to distance himself from other church officials who have criticized the news media for reporting on the sex abuse crisis, which they called attacks on the church.
In September, in the first state visit to Britain by a pope, Benedict offered his strongest criticism yet of the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis, saying it had not been “sufficiently vigilant” or “sufficiently swift and decisive” in cracking down on abusers.
Benedict, an old-school European intellectual, does not fit seamlessly into the American model of conservatism, though American conservatives are among his strong supporters, heartened by his opposition to abortion, divorce and “anything-goes” multiculturalism. For instance, Benedict opposed the war in Iraq, rejects the death penalty, denounces the excesses of capitalism and focuses strongly on helping the poor and immigrants.
Beyond the liberal-conservative debate, Benedict has worked to reunite Roman Catholics with Orthodox Christians, divided for 1,000 years, and open formal relations with China. He also speaks out often on the plight of Christian minorities in Muslim countries, as Christians disappear from the lands where the faith began.
Despite his quiet demeanor, Benedict has not shrunk from controversy even outside the church. In 2006, he enflamed Muslims in a speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as calling Islam “evil and inhuman.” The pope later apologized, saying that his words were misunderstood and pledging a focused interfaith dialogue with Muslims, which began in 2008.
A new controversy erupted in January 2009, after the pope revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson, a Briton. Bishop Richardson, in an interview broadcast on a Swedish television channel, had denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers and said he believed that no more than 300,000 Jews died in the Holocaust rather than the accepted figure of 6 million.
Global outrage was immediate. In a rare criticism from the head of a government, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called on the pope to clarify his position on the Holocaust, saying his previous remarks had not been sufficient.
Responding to the reaction, on Feb. 5, 2009, the Vatican called on the bishop to take back his statements denying the Holocaust. On Feb. 12, the pope, trying to defuse the controversy, said that “any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable,” especially if it comes from a clergyman.
In late February 2009, Bishop Williamson apologized to the pope, the church and “survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich.” But he did not address the substance of his views on the Holocaust or disavow his remarks. The Vatican said that the apology was not sufficient.
The following month, the pope sent a letter to bishops worldwide explaining why he revoked Bishop Williamson’s excommunication and admitting mistakes in how the Vatican handled the case. In the letter, the pope said that he had considered his action “a modest act of mercy” but that it suddenly appeared something totally different — “as the denial of reconciliation between Christians and Jews.”
Critical of the Global Economy
In May, the pope traveled to the Mideast, arriving in Jordan before traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Vatican officials said the pope was eager to make the trip, given his age, 82.
But his first day in Israel seemed to underscore the tensions in the region rather than ease them. After the pope visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and offered the “deep compassion” of the Roman Catholic Church for Hitler’s victims, Jewish leaders expressed disappointment that the pontiff, who is German, had not mentioned Germany or the Nazis.
Later, at an interfaith meeting where the pope urged greater dialogue, Sheik Taysir Tamimi, the chief justice of the Palestinian Islamic courts, veered from the program and accused Israel of taking innocent lives.
In July 2009, after more than two years in preparation, Benedict released “Caritas in Veritate,” or “Charity in Truth,” his third encyclical since he became pope in 2005. In it, the pope called for a radical rethinking of the global economy, criticizing a growing divide between rich and poor and urging the establishment of a “true world political authority” to oversee the economy and work for the “common good.”
He criticized the current economic system, “where the pernicious effects of sin are evident,” and urged financiers in particular to “rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity.”
Reportedly delayed to take into consideration the financial crisis, it was released by the Vatican on the eve of the Group of 8 industrialized nations summit meeting in July 2009.
In many ways, the document was a puzzling cross between an anti-globalization tract and a government white paper, another signal that the Vatican does not comfortably fit into traditional political categories of right and left.
Benedict also called for “greater social responsibility” on the part of business. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty,” he wrote.
Benedict approved the Vatican’s decision in October 2009 to reach out to disaffected Anglicans. The move creates a formal structure to oversee conversions that had previously been evaluated on a case-by-case basis, including those of married Anglican priests, who are permitted to remain married after they convert to Catholicism. Under the new regime, former Anglicans who become Catholic can preserve some liturgical elements of the Anglican Mass.