Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press
Updated: April 5, 2012
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the Roman 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.
Prior to his elevation, Benedict had led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a key Vatican office, in which he was seen as a tough enforcer of John Paul’s strongly conservative views.
Many Vatican experts predicted that Benedict, a German-born, 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 Catholics.
The church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal flared up with new rounds of accusations, and has threatened to define Benedict’s papacy. He has faced 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.
Benedict’s visit to Germany in September 2011 encapsulated much of the turmoil that has defined his papacy. Instead of a pleasant visit to his native land, the trip became a journey to the front lines in the battle over the future of the church. The pope addressed members of Germany’s parliament while thousands of demonstrators aired a wide array of criticisms of the church and Benedict on subjects that included the role of women in the church, gay rights and victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Of all European countries, Ireland has undergone perhaps the most profound transformation in its relationship to the church, an institution that permeated almost every aspect of life there for generations. In summer 2011, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny unexpectedly took the floor in Parliament to express his outrage over the revelations in the Cloyne Report, which detailed abuse and cover-ups by church officials in southern Ireland through 2009. The Vatican withdrew its ambassador from Dublin, and the Irish government announced that it would introduce a package of legislation to protect children.
That Benedict’s papacy has gone from crisis to crisis points to more than his own character and beliefs. It also spotlights the papacy 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.
Denouncing Disobedience Within the Ranks
In early April 2012, the pope gave a stern pre-Easter homily at the Vatican, denouncing “disobedience” in the church. Striking the tone that once earned him the moniker “God’s Rottweiler,” the pontiff cut down reform-minded priests who are seeking the ordination of women and the abolition of priestly celibacy.
Referring to recent initiatives by clerics in Austria and elsewhere, Benedict said that while such priests claim to act “for concern for the church,” they are driven by their “own preferences and ideas,” and should instead turn toward a “radicalism of obedience” — a phrase that perfectly captures the essence of the theologian pope’s thought.
While there was nothing new in the contents of Benedict’s message, it was one of the strongest — and most direct — speeches of a seven-year-old reign that has more often been dominated by a sexual abuse scandal, repeated tangles with other faiths and a Vatican hierarchy in disarray. It also showed Benedict back in his element as a defender of orthodoxy, favoring a smaller church of more ardent believers over a larger community that resorts to watered-down doctrine.
In his homily, the pope was referring to an Austrian group called Preachers’ Initiative, started by Father Helmut Schüller, which has issued a “Call to Disobedience,” asking the church to allow the ordination of women, to remove the obligation of priestly celibacy and to permit priests to allow divorced people to receive communion. His followers say they are doing so to keep the church healthy and to combat a shortage of priests.
More than 400 Austrian priests have endorsed the initiative, according to media reports, and priests in the United States and across Europe have also signed on in the past year, most recently in Belgium, Ireland and Slovakia.
The Vatican fears that the initiative could cause a schism within the church. But in interviews, Father Schüller has called the Vatican an “absolutist monarchy” and said that the church’s resistance to change might lead to rupture anyway.
Long-Awaited Visits to Mexico and Cuba
On March 23, 2012, the German pontiff embarked on a three-day visit to Mexico. He arrived in Silao, Mexico, and was greeted by Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón. One of the highlights of the trip was an open-air Mass in León, where the pope spoke to an audience of more than half a million people. In a nation wracked by drug violence, the pople urged the faithful to seek a humble and pure heart and trust in God in the face of evil
On March 26, the pope arrived in Cuba for a three-day visit, viewed as a show of improved church-state relations after decades of hostilities. The pontiff declared himself a “pilgrim of charity” and urged the island to move toward greater openness, freedom and religious devotion. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, greeted Benedict at the airport in Santiago de Cuba, where the pontiff celebrated an outdoor Mass before 200,000 people.
The culmination of the visit was an outdoor Mass in the nation’s capital, Havana. Beneath looming images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Virgin Mary, the pontiff stood in Revolution Square, the heart of the Castro government, and issued a ringing call for “authentic freedom” in what is consistently ranked as one of the most repressive nations on earth.
With President Castro sitting in the front row — and a day after a top Cuban official said that Cuba would not pursue political change any time soon — Benedict decried “those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others.”
The visit has highlighted the complex dual role of the pope as a spiritual guide and a political figure. After Mass, the pope had an “animated dialogue” with Fidel Castro at the Vatican embassy in Havana, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters. He said the meeting was marked by “cordiality” and that Mr. Castro, whom Father Lombardi referred to as “Comandante Castro,” had asked the pope a range of questions, including what a pope does.
The State Department said it had conveyed a message to the pope through the Vatican nunzio in Washington, asking him to press for the release of Alan Gross, an American contractor imprisoned in Cuba for distributing satellite equipment. Father Lombardi said that “humanitarian issues” had been raised in the course of the pope’s meetings in Havana but said he could not give further details.
Amnesty International said there had been reports that the Cuban government had arrested dissidents and blocked their cellphones before the Mass and called on the pope to denounce such actions.
The Vatican said that in his short visit, the pope did not meet with any individual groups, in the Church or outside, despite requests from human rights groups that he meet with Cuban dissidents.
Benedict’s visit came 14 years after the historic first papal trip to Cuba by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. It is a delicate time for the church in Cuba, where it has staked out a mediating role between the Cuban people and the Castro government. In a key moment in 2010, the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, helped negotiate the release of dozens of political prisoners. But others have criticized the church for being too close to the government.
An Old-School Intellectual
Before becoming pope, Benedict expressed his ideas with force over many years in books and lectures. Central to those ideas was how the Catholic church could find its place in a modern, secular society. His answer was to rein in what he saw as excesses in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which were aimed at bringing the church closer to ordinary Catholic life. He encouraged a church of the most orthodox believers — the better, he believed, to ensure the church’s survival.
His many critics in the church called his approach narrow and regressive, removing it from life as it is actually lived and stifling a debate they said would move the church forward as it grappled 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.
But 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 example, Benedict opposed the war in Iraq, rejects the death penalty, denounces the excesses of capitalism and focuses strongly on helping the poor and immigrants.
And in a stunning shift, in November 2010, the Vatican said that the use of condoms by people infected with H.I.V. was a “first step of responsibility’’ in protecting others against infection by the virus, “whether it’s a man or a woman or a transsexual.’’ It was a significant personal pronouncement from the pope after more than two decades of heated debate and condemnation by health workers who said the church’s ban on prophylactics was morally indefensible during the AIDS crisis.
Beyond the liberal-conservative debate, Benedict has worked to reunite Roman Catholics with Orthodox Christians, divided for 1,000 years, and open formal relations between the Vatican and 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.
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.
In May 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.
In Ireland, the Cloyne report, conducted by an independent investigative and released in July 2011, found that clergy members in the rural Irish diocese of Cloyne did not act on complaints against 19 priests from 1996 to as recently as 2009. More damningly, it said that the Vatican had encouraged bishops to ignore child-protection guidelines adopted by Irish bishops in 1996 that included “mandatory reporting” of abuse to the civil authorities.
Also in Ireland, a 2009 report found that thousands of children were abused in state-run Catholic boarding schools from the 1930s to the 1990s. The Irish government paid hundreds of millions of euros in compensation to the victims.
In May 2010, in one of his most concrete actions since the scandal began, Benedict appointed a high-profile team of prelates, including the archbishop of New York, to investigate Irish dioceses and seminaries.
In the United States, documents emerged in March 2010 that top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who molested as many as 200 deaf boys over a period of 25 years, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church.
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope, showed 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.
Experts have said the steady drumbeat of scandal has cast a shadow over the Vatican and could undermine Benedict’s moral authority. Prior to assuming the papacy in 2005, Benedict was head of the Vatican’s main doctrinal arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was in charge of Vatican investigations into abuse.
In September 2011, human rights lawyers and victims of clergy sexual abuse filed a complaint urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate and prosecute Pope Benedict and three top Vatican officials for crimes against humanity for what they described as abetting and covering up the rape and sexual assault of children by priests.
It was unlikely that the complaint against the Vatican would fit the court’s mandate to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, but even an examination of the issue by the prosecution office would appear to serve the plaintiffs’ goal of getting international attention for the case.
Experts in international law said they thought the court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, would be reluctant to accept the cases because of thorny jurisdictional questions, as well as political and religious sensitivities.
They said that the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests was sufficiently heinous and numerous to meet the court’s standards. The question is whether the facts show that the Vatican officials actually perpetuated the abuse.
Benedict has said that “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.
Benedict has not shrunk from controversy even outside the church. In 2006, he inflamed Muslims in a speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor in 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 six 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, in February the Vatican called on the bishop to take back his statements denying the Holocaust. 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.
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 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.”
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.