‘My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited’ to the role, German-born Pope Benedict XVI said in 2013, when he became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down
The moment that transformed Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy — and perhaps his church — passed so quietly that it was initially missed.
The pontiff was closing what one reporter described as an “extremely banal,” routine ceremony with Vatican cardinals on Feb. 11, 2013, when he uttered, in Latin, that he had made “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”
The white-haired, German-born theologian, then 85, said he had “repeatedly examined my conscience before God” and concluded that the modern world, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” required a pope in better physical and intellectual condition. “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited” to the papacy.
Many people at the meeting did not understand Latin. Confused looks were swapped until the meaning seeped in. To Angelo Sodano, dean of the cardinals, Pope Benedict’s words came like “a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky.” A reporter in the room began to cry.
Pope Benedict, 95, died Saturday in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican. His death was announced by the Vatican.
The first resignation of the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in 600 years would crystallize the full weight of the crises then battering the world’s largest Christian denomination. An intellectual giant and rock of moral certitude who had spent a lifetime defending the faith from outside forces, Pope Benedict would ultimately see his tenure as pope undone in large part by a rot within.
Documents leaked by his former butler to the Italian media would pull back a curtain on the Roman Curia, the Holy See’s bureaucracy accused of corruption and conniving behind Vatican walls. The Vatican bank faced mounting criticism over its opaque operations, leading foreign financial institutions to temporarily suspend credit transactions in the world’s smallest state.
Yet one challenge, which first emerged under his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, towered above all the others: the ongoing revelations of rampant sexual abuse by Catholic priests and decades-long efforts by the church hierarchy to cover it up. With his resignation, Pope Benedict, a figure dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” for his fierce protection of church dogma, seemingly conceded his very human limitations, and his inability to manage a church in the face of existential crises.
His decision to leave his post would demystify an office shrouded in transcendental authority, upending the papal role that at times had seemed in danger of losing relevance.
“We can reveal the face of the church and how this face is, at times, disfigured,” Benedict would say in his final homily as pope. “I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church.”
After being for decades the guardian of Vatican orthodoxy and a barricade against change — first as head of its doctrinal office, then as pontiff — Pope Benedict ended his run as a revolutionary.
Pope Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis
, has used his pulpit to spotlight social issues including the plight of migrants, the dangers of climate change and the loneliness particular to the internet age. For theologically and politically conservative Catholics, the Francis era is one of dangerous inattention to traditional family values; for the more liberal faithful, it represents a long-overdue shift to a more open and inviting pastoral approach. But Pope Benedict’s place in the history of Catholicism has not been set, and remains one of the great Catholic debates of the early 21st century.
When then-Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19, 2005, his selection at the conclave was understood to be an affirmation of a rigid view of orthodoxy. One of the leading Catholic theologians of his time, Cardinal Ratzinger was the longtime head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a vastly influential cleric forging church policy.
He was widely seen as the church’s strongest possible weapon against the pressures of secularism and relativism. Following in the stead of the charismatic John Paul II, he was expected to continue firming the barriers around an explicitly conservative Catholicism. Many observers predicted he would drive out the doctrinally ambivalent, resulting in a smaller, but more faithful, church.
To the surprise of supporters and detractors, Pope Benedict presided over the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics with a gentler touch.
A bookish priest, he revived ancient clothing and music. In his best-selling books and weekly audiences before thousands, he preached on major figures in church history in the manner of an erudite professor, often delving into allocutions on rarefied topics, including a Christian faith he saw as spliced with Hellenistic thought.
But he could display a humanity distinct from his reputation as an icy intellectual. During a 2010 visit to the Mediterranean island-nation of Malta, he wept with adults who alleged they had been victims of child-sexual abuse by priests in the 1980s and 1990s and expressed what the Vatican described as “shame and sorrow” over their suffering.
Pope Benedict, while stirring the affections of devoutly conservative Catholics, never achieved the rock-star adulation that greeted his charismatic predecessor. But he had chosen a different route. Pope Benedict did not have the globe-trotting, bear-hugging, larger-than-life persona of John Paul II. Whereas that pontiff embraced the world as his parish, Pope Benedict’s attentions remained largely within his church.
“Benedict’s focus was very much on the church internally,” journalist David Gibson, who wrote a biography of the pontiff, said in an interview. “And not even the structures of the church, but the faith — promoting the faith as a kind of foundation to everything else. He just wasn’t interested in reforming the church or opening the church to new things. He wanted to get back to basics. To him, devotion, piety, faith came first. If people were true to that, everything else would not matter.”
Pope Benedict tried to shut down internal conversations on ordaining women and reinforced the church’s blanket condemnation on the use of contraception. A traditionalist, he revived the centuries-old Latin-language Tridentine Mass, and sought a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, an ultra-Orthodox breakaway group that rejected the modernizing changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The earlier years of Pope Benedict’s tenure were marked by occasional public relations stumbles. He offended many Muslims with a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Islam encouraged violence and brought things “evil and inhuman.”
In the speech, Pope Benedict did not say whether he agreed with the comment, but he apologized after it provoked widespread denunciations and episodes of extremist violence against Catholics in the Muslim world. “These were, in fact, quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought,” the pope said. To help quell the protests, he made a high-profile trip to Turkey, where he prayed alongside the grand mufti in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.
He infuriated health agencies working to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa when he said during a visit there in 2009 that the distribution of condoms aggravates the problem. Like his predecessor, he said sexual abstinence was a better way to control the disease.
The same year, Pope Benedict acknowledged that he had mishandled the rehabilitation of British Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of St. Pius X, who expressed skepticism about the deaths of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. The furor was stoked in part by the pope’s German heritage and participation, albeit unenthusiastic, in the Hitler Youth.
Pope Benedict’s stated intent was to unify church factions. He claimed not to have been made aware of Williamson’s public record of Holocaust denials. He was also unsuccessful in ordering the bishop to renounce his views. Williamson was subsequently expelled from the Society of St. Pius X and again declared excommunicated, in 2015, by Francis.
Other issues hampered Pope Benedict’s tenure and raised questions about his control of Vatican management. In 2010, prosecutors in Rome impounded $30 million from the Vatican Bank in an investigation linked to money laundering.
In 2017, two former top managers of the bank were convicted of minor violations of anti-money laundering norms. Angelo Proietti, an Italian contractor, who had done work for several Vatican offices, was sentenced in 2018 to 2½ years in jail for using a Vatican bank account for money laundering.
Although Pope Benedict is credited with seeking to instill a new measure of transparency at the Vatican bank — creating an anti-money laundering agency and entrusting the project to a lay Swiss lawyer, René Brülhart — he was also seen as unable to prevent powerful figures within the church’s bureaucracy from undermining his cleanup of the Holy See’s books.
The scandal facing Pope Benedict reached a fever pitch after Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s personal butler since 2007, was arrested by Vatican police in 2012, after confidential letters and documents addressed to the pope and other Vatican officials were found in his Vatican apartment. He appeared to have been leaking the classified information to the journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.
Nuzzi published a book, “His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI,” consisting of confidential letters and memos. The scandal that would become known as “Vatileaks” seemed to reveal fierce internal power struggles and corruption, including inflated contracts for the annual Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.
A subsequent Vatican investigation would allegedly uncover evidence of blackmail schemes against homosexual clerics in the Holy See hierarchy, a story first reported by the Italian daily La Repubblica. In the book “The Last Conversations of Benedict XVI,” a collection of interviews conducted by biographer Peter Seewald, the longtime Vatican watcher, Pope Benedict denied being pressured to resign, but made reference to a powerful “gay lobby” within the Vatican that he claimed to have broken up.
Vatican insiders would privately cite the Vatileaks scandal as a key factor in Pope Benedict’s historic decision to resign. Publicly, however, church officials downplayed the scandal.
“They are little things, pebbles in the shoe that hurt so much and seem to prevent you from going forward,” Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo told The Washington Post in 2013. “If one looks at the act of betrayal, it is in itself a grave act, even more so because it is near the apex of the church. But what does this tell us? It tells us only about the fragility of a person or of some people.”
In 2012, Vatican magistrates indicted Gabriele for aggravated theft. He was found guilty and given a reduced sentence of 18 months in jail before Pope Benedict pardoned him later that year.
‘A deeply learned man’
Unlike John Paul II, Pope Benedict was not especially well traveled as pope. Vatican officials cited his advanced age; he was 78 when he took office, while his predecessor was 58. Pope Benedict traveled mostly on the European continent, although he also visited Brazil, Australia and the Middle East.
In 2008, he made a six-day visit to the United States, where he held the first publicly known meeting between a pope and victims of abuse by Catholic priests and apologized for a scandal that has upended the trust of many Catholics in the West, where many such cases have surfaced.
The U.S. trip was initially hailed as a success that humanized a man seen sometimes as an aloof, hard-line theologian.
But in the months after the meeting, leaders of sex-abuse victims groups criticized the lack of follow-up by the Vatican on its promises to step up its legal, juridical, and pastoral response to the problem of pedophile priests.
“Pure show, no substance,” David Clohessy, then-national director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), the nation’s largest victims’ group, said of the meeting.
In another unusually dramatic stroke, Pope Benedict in 2009 reached out to conservative members of the Anglican Communion possibly seeking reunification with the Catholic Church. He created a structure within Roman Catholicism that allowed them to keep not only their distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical heritage but their married priests as well.
The bid to create a kind of “church within a church” raised questions about whether Catholic priests might be allowed to marry, ending a tradition of celibacy that had lasted a millennium. But defenders of Pope Benedict said the move was simply an effort to build ties with conservative Anglicans.
“He’s not trying to force everyone and everything into a similar pattern,” George Weigel, a biographer of Pope Benedict at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in a 2009 interview with The Post. “He recognizes as a deeply learned man that there are many forms of expression of Catholic faith, that there are different schools of theology within the Catholic Church and that there are different liturgical and spiritual traditions within the Catholic Church.”
Pope Benedict wrote three encyclicals — a high form of papal writing — during his tenure.
His first, “God Is Love,” was an elaboration on love and charity that was largely praised as seeking to express beliefs that are common to all Catholics. In his second, “Saved in Hope,” he wrote that attempts to banish God have “led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice … A world without God is a world without hope.”
His third, “Charity in Truth,” was the most controversial. In it, he criticized the international economic system and called for a global structure based on social responsibility, concern for the dignity of the worker and a respect for ethics. Liberals embraced it, but conservatives resisted the idea of a strong international institution to regulate the global economy.
The third encyclical “showed him to be very liberal, seeing a major role for government in regulating the economy and redistributing wealth,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, author and journalist.
Pope Benedict saw relativism as the core challenge facing the Catholic Church. The church, he believed, must reassert objective truth, with the person of Jesus as the focal point. In an address the day before he was elected pontiff, he decried the “dictatorship of relativism” for “not recognizing anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
“If the heart of John Paul’s papacy was the struggle against the Soviet dictatorship, the heart of Benedict’s papacy is the struggle against a dictatorship of relativism in the West,” John L. Allen Jr., a former Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a papal biographer, said in a 2009 interview.
Pope Benedict was deeply concerned — some say pessimistic — about the Catholic Church’s prospects in this fight. Yet his critics noticed that in a widely quoted 1997 interview he sounded undisturbed that people were leaving Christianity. The faith might be in better hands with “small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world that let God in.”
As Pope Benedict explored the theological and societal challenges facing the church, he showed less interest in its inner bureaucratic workings, which according to many Vatican insiders desperately needed to be brought into the 21st century.
“This was part of the understanding of what was supposed to happen in April 2005 — that this guy who had worked in Rome for 25 years and who knew how badly in need of redesign and reconfiguration the central machinery of the Catholic Church is would take that on,” Weigel said in 2009.
At the time of his resignation, as well as in the years before his death, Pope Benedict would be viewed as a pontiff who took important, initial steps toward confronting clerical abuse, but who never followed through with concrete reforms. He proved reluctant to dish out broad and swift punishment to bishops who buried accusations, or move forward with much-called-for public lists of the predator priests.
When he was elected pope, Benedict was the oldest person to assume the office since Clement XII’s elevation in 1730. Pope Benedict himself predicted a brief, transitional papacy.
He suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in 1991, which slightly and temporarily impaired his eyesight, and a mild stroke sometime between 2003 and 2005. He suffered from a heart condition and had been on medication for years. In 2009, he was hospitalized after falling and breaking his right wrist while on vacation in the Alps.
In explaining his decision to resign, Pope Benedict invoked his infirmity and his belief that the modern papacy requires more vigor than he possessed.
“In order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” he said in his announcement, “strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Some praised the pope’s decision as an expression of humility; others said it recast a divine office as a secular CEO-like position from which one may step down or be removed. His decision to resign was so mind-boggling that many Vatican experts spent the day arguing about what verb to use to description his action, because “retiring” seemed technically impossible.
On March 13, 2013, he was succeeded by Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine Jesuit who took the name Francis. The Vatican had to put out a statement clarifying that Pope Benedict would use the title “pope emeritus” because no one knew what to call a second living pope. Vatican insiders would later describe the two men as holding each other in high regard, something that perhaps eased the otherwise awkward situation of two popes coexisting within Vatican walls.
Pope Benedict’s “esteem [for Francis] is very high,” the former pontiff’s private secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein told The Post in 2014. “And it has grown because of the courage of the new pope, week after week. At the beginning, they did not know each other very well. But then Pope Francis
phoned him, wrote him, visited him, phoned him again and invited him [to private meetings], so that their contact became very personal and confidential.”
A life in Catholicism
Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn. He was 5 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor, but the rise of Nazism did not much affect the quiet, studious boy until he reached his teens.
In the meantime, young Joseph enjoyed an idyllic — though not affluent — childhood. His father, a rural police officer, was transferred frequently, and the family moved through predominantly Catholic and rural Bavaria in southeast Germany. The family finally settled in Traunstein, where the father retired at 60.
In his autobiography, “Milestones,” Pope Benedict recalls a happy childhood — hiking with his mother and older brother and sister, watching puppet shows, constructing the family Nativity scene. The family went to Mass most weekdays and three times on Sunday. Joseph collected missals — the books a priest uses to celebrate Mass.
At 14, he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth, the main organization for indoctrinating young people. Membership was mandatory, but he was spared having to attend meetings when a friendly math teacher told him that he would sign him in.
Nazism, which dominated Germany, had begun its march through Europe. Religious instruction was banned at Joseph’s school, and lyrics in Christian songbooks were replaced by verses that celebrated Hitler. He served for a time in an antiaircraft unit that guarded a BMW plant outside Munich, but, because of a badly infected finger, he never had to fire a gun.
At one time, he saw enslaved laborers conscripted from a branch of the Dachau concentration camp. He remembered seeing Hungarian Jews being shipped to their deaths and had a cousin with Down syndrome who died as a result of the Nazi euthanasia program to exterminate the physically and mentally infirm.
The brutality he witnessed strengthened his conviction of religion’s role in society.
“Only the Christian faith had the possibility to heal these people and give a new beginning,” he said in a 2001 interview with Time magazine.
After the war ended, Joseph Ratzinger resumed his seminary studies and was ordained along with his brother, Georg, in 1951. Georg died in 2020 at age 96. Maria Ratzinger, his sister, managed her cardinal brother’s house until she died in 1991.
As a young priest, he acquired a reputation as one of the church’s most promising theologians, working at a succession of universities in Germany. In 1962, Cardinal Josef Frings, archbishop of Cologne, chose the young star to accompany him to Rome as a peritus, or expert, for the Second Vatican Council.
Among his efforts at Vatican II was his drafting of a speech for Frings that was instrumental in thwarting conservative efforts to control the council and opening the event to proposals from bishops around the world. But before the council ended in 1965, he was already expressing serious reservations about its course and the extent of the changes.
He grew to believe that reformers had gone too far, opening the door too wide to the surrounding culture and radically weakening the church. He wrote later in his memoir that “the impression grew steadily that nothing was now stable in the Church, that everything was open to revision … The faith no longer seemed exempt from human decision-making but rather was now apparently determined by it.”
After Vatican II
The young theologian was horrified by the protest culture that swept through Europe in the 1960s. At the University of Tubingen, where he was chairman in dogmatic theology, student protesters disrupted lectures and staged daily protests. Some students embraced Marxism and chanted “accursed be Jesus” as a revolutionary slogan.
In 1969, he resigned from Tubingen and moved to the more peaceful University of Regensburg, in his native Bavaria, where eventually he was elevated to dean and vice president. He also became theological adviser to the German bishops.
He supported some of the changes of Vatican II. He believed that the church had become too inward-looking and had to reengage with the modern world. He also believed that the changes were intended, in part, to restore some aspects of the church’s ancient traditions. But he watched with dismay as liberal reformers rejected such traditions as the Latin Mass and made what he considered too many concessions to modern culture. He was wary of ecumenism that might subvert Catholicism’s idea of itself as Jesus’ one true church.
He told Time magazine in 2001: “It is absolute nonsense to say Vatican II left it up to the individual to decide which religious ideas he would adopt and which he would not.”
In 1977, he was named the archbishop of Munich and Freising, and he was elevated to cardinal later that year. During the conclave that elected the short-lived tenure of John Paul I, Archbishop Ratzinger got to know Karol Wojtyla, a little-known Polish cardinal. They shared a deep orthodoxy, and shortly after Wojtyla became pope in 1978, he chose him to take over as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Under John Paul II, it became the second most powerful job in the Vatican — and the most controversial.
Cardinal Ratzinger was seen as guardian of the church’s most orthodox teachings on matters such as homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, celibacy and the all-male priesthood.
He infuriated liberals by issuing strong denunciations of homosexual relationships, and he campaigned against liberation theology — popular in Latin America — which he and John Paul II believed was leading people toward Marxism. The congregation also reaffirmed that artificial contraception was an “intrinsically evil act” prohibited without exception.
Academic freedom at Catholic institutions became an issue. The Vatican mandated that all professors of theology at Catholic universities receive permission to teach from the local bishop.
Estimates are that formal censure — such as an order not to speak publicly or to publish — was imposed on a dozen theologians during his tenure as head of the congregation and that investigations were opened on about 80 more.
Critics said moves during his time as head of church doctrine stifled debate and innovative research in controversial theological areas. His defenders maintained that he was merely carrying out the agenda of John Paul II and unfairly became a lightning rod for criticism.
Yet even his critics acknowledged his keen mind and prodigious memory. He could recall exact quotations at great length in several different languages, in some cases from books he had read decades earlier. He was an accomplished pianist with a fondness for Mozart.
He was also known for his collegiality and courtesy. When he was a cardinal, restaurateurs around Rome kept pictures of him on their walls. He was known as a friendly, talkative customer who asked about their children and otherwise engaged them in conversation.
His kindness toward the stray cats of Rome was the stuff of Vatican legend. When Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the German newspaper Bild wrote, he tended to the cats that frequented a Vatican garden and bandaged their wounds.
As pope, he took the name Benedict in honor of Pope Benedict XV, who sought to negotiate peace among warring countries during World War I, and Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Christian monasticism.
Pope Benedict later said that he had been reluctant to assume the papacy, that he would have preferred to retire to his house in a Bavarian village near Regensburg, with his brother, and dedicate himself to writing books.
“At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ ” he told a group of German pilgrims shortly after his election. “Evidently, this time He didn’t listen to me.”
The pope emeritus foreshadowed the final stage of his life in 2018, writing in a rare letter to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra that he was on “a pilgrimage toward Home.”
During his retirement, Benedict largely avoided controversy. He chose, however, to wear papal white robes and voiced his thoughts on occasion, including to contract Francis’s ideas on the nature of clerical abuse and later in objection to proposed exceptions on priestly celibacy.
After a church-commissioned report accused him of mishandling four abuse cases during his time running the archdiocese of Munich between 1977 and 1982, he expressed his “profound shame” even as his legal team insisted that he had never participated in coverups of abuse.