In the annals of papal history, Joseph Ratzinger, who has died aged 95, will be remembered principally as the first pope in 600 years to retire, rather than to die in office. Any other achievements of his eight-year pontificate as Benedict XVI – and there were a few worthy of enduring note – will ultimately be overshadowed, first by the manner of his going, and second because his papacy came between that of two controversial and larger-than-life figures, his longtime boss, Karol Wojtyła, John Paul II, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis I, the self-proclaimed pope “from the ends of the Earth”.
In doctrinal terms, Benedict spent his time in charge tweaking the legacy of the 27 years of the Polish pontiff. The conservative settlement that John Paul had imposed, with Cardinal Ratzinger’s able and unswerving assistance, on the great theological battles that had followed the reforming second Vatican council of the 1960s remained fundamentally undisturbed during Benedict’s reign. The victories already achieved in the last decades of the 20th century over more liberal Catholic voices over questions of sexual morality, clerical celibacy, the place of women and religious freedom were, as far as Benedict was concerned, secure. His pontificate, then, is best seen as an extended postscript to the one that had gone before.
But that is not the whole picture. There are three principal ways in which it differed. First, Benedict was not by inclination so dominant or overbearing a character as John Paul. He was able to break new ground in the modern history of the papacy by occasionally uttering the word “sorry”: sorry for allowing a Holocaust-denier, the British-born priest Richard Williamson, back into the fold in 2009, an error made – as Benedict humbly admitted in a letter to the world’s Catholic bishops – because he and those around him in the Vatican had not been sufficiently up to speed with modern means of communication to check the internet and see Williamson’s offending remarks. Sorry, too, for any offence caused by a 2006 lecture at Regensburg University in Germany in which Benedict quoted disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad; and sorry, repeatedly, to the world and to victims for the crimes of paedophile priests.
This final apology was part of the second way in which Benedict’s papacy deserves to be seen as distinctive. He was the first pope to look the abuse scandal in the eye and attempt to tackle it. He may have made only a start, but his predecessor had simply swept it under the carpet and even given sanctuary to known abusers. Benedict withdrew that protection and promised a thorough review that would stop such a betrayal happening again. Delivery of the promise, though, was patchy.
His third claim to be his own man came when he surprised even those close to him in February 2013 by resigning, on the grounds that he was simply too old and too ill to carry the burdens of leading a global church of 1.2 billion. Hardly a revolutionary thing for an 85-year-old man to say, you might think, but it has almost always been the tradition of popes to die in office, emphasising that theirs was a God-given job and therefore one that only God could release them from by calling them back to him.
Benedict’s abrupt departure created short-, medium- and long-term problems for the Catholic church. The cardinal electors negotiated the first of these challenges better than expected. Their choice of a successor, Cardinal Bergoglio, from Argentina, was made quickly and decisively, and sent out a powerful signal to the world that Catholicism had recognised the need for a new approach.
The medium-term problem was the fact that there were suddenly not one but two popes. Part of the mystique of the office is that it elevates just one man above every other member of the church, and indeed the main argument long used against papal resignations, even when the incumbent was so physically or mentally frail that they could not function as a leader, was that this unique source of authority would be divided in an organisation that runs on hierarchical principles. If you are going to have an absolute monarch, you cannot have two pretenders.
On this occasion there was just one uncomfortable incident, in January 2020, when, in a foreword to a book by a deeply traditionalist colleague, Benedict warned Francis not to relax rules on priestly celibacy. When it made headlines, Benedict immediately asked that his name be removed from the text. Some believed the offending passage had been added by those who looked after him.
Whether or not you regard the prospect of subsequent popes resigning when they reach a certain age as a long-term problem depends on your view of the papal office. Resignations sit uneasily with the traditional belief that the pope is a quasi-divine figure, with a hotline to heaven. For all his theological and doctrinal conservatism, and his delight in the trappings of his ancient office, Benedict clearly did not.
Born in the village of Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, Joseph was the third child of three and second son of a former hotel cook, Maria (nee Peintner) and a police commissioner, also Joseph, both devout Catholics. His childhood was unusual because of the extraordinary piety of the family, which separated him from his contemporaries. There was never, it seems, a time when young Joseph did not want to be a priest.
His father’s opposition to the Nazis is reported to have curtailed his police career. A lasting memory for Joseph was, as a boy, seeing Nazi supporters beat up his local parish priest in Traunstein, near the Austrian border. On another occasion, in 1941, a younger cousin who had Down’s syndrome was taken away by Nazi officials under their eugenics programme to perish with many others.
Membership of the Hitler Youth was compulsory for the two Ratzinger boys. Like other 16-year-olds, Joseph was called up in 1943, serving first with an anti-aircraft battery in Munich and then with an infantry unit on the Hungarian border, before finding himself for six weeks in an American prisoner of war camp. The end of the war meant he could resume his studies for the priesthood and he was ordained in 1951, on the same day as his elder brother, Georg.
His wartime record was briefly a matter of controversy when he was elected pope, but his detractors struggled to make charges of wrongdoing stick. It is true, though, that in his 1997 memoir of childhood, Milestones, Ratzinger surprisingly made no reference to the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis, while labouring the trials and tribulations of the Catholic church in the same period. He also appears to have chosen the path of least resistance – in stark contrast to John Paul II who, as a young man in Poland, worked with the local resistance to spirit away Jews to safety.
Ratzinger followed an academic path, lecturing first at Munich University from 1957, becoming a professor at Bonn in 1959, and in 1963 moving to Münster University and in 1966 to Tübingen. Such mobility is unusual in German academia and a sign perhaps that Ratzinger was not always an easy or accepting colleague.
While at Bonn, he was spotted by Cardinal Josef Frings, archbishop of Cologne, and it was as a theological adviser to Frings, a noted moderniser, that he attended the second Vatican council in the early 1960s. Ratzinger became one of a prominent group of young, progressive theologians and subsequently, as a contributor to the magazine Concilium, championed freedom of theological inquiry.
His personal Road to Damascus came in 1968 at Tübingen, which had embraced the Europe-wide outbreak of student unrest of that period. It profoundly disturbed Ratzinger and caused him to decamp the following year for the more traditionally minded Regensburg, and, more significantly, prompted a wholesale re-evaluation of his commitment to the reform movement in the church.
In Catholic circles, he began to voice his disillusion at the effects of the modernisation ushered in by the council, and at the constant demand for change and innovation. He started to advocate a reinvigorated central church government to hold the line against liberals, and to defend the traditions of Catholicism that he came to see increasingly as its strength. As a symbol of this change of heart, in 1972 Ratzinger defected from Concilium to the group of conservative-minded theologians who were founding a rival journal, Communio.
The need to halt the reform process was fast becoming mainstream thought in the European Catholic church. When, in 1977, Ratzinger was appointed by the Vatican as cardinal archbishop of Munich, he used his new platform to attack progressive theologians, such as his former academic colleague and friend the Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng.
Such a stance chimed well with the incoming regime of Karol Wojtyła, elected in 1978 as Pope John Paul II. He was another second Vatican council figure who was also now wary of what it had set in train. In 1981, Ratzinger was named head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the most senior positions in the Roman curia. He worked closely and harmoniously with John Paul, notably to rein in the radical liberation theologians of Latin America, whom both suspected of importing Marxist thought into Catholicism by the back door, and to silence dissenters such as the distinguished American scholar Father Charles Curran, who had publicly questioned official teaching on sexual morality. The freedom to explore, which Ratzinger had once demanded for theologians, was now being rapidly eroded by his own hand.
It was often easier for otherwise loyal Catholics concerned by the draconian actions of the Vatican in regard to popular, liberal theologians to blame Ratzinger rather than John Paul II. The pope managed to evade any sort of categorisation within his lifetime, not least by dint of his personal charisma, while, as his right-hand man, the apparently dour, inflexible Ratzinger was a more convenient target. But, as pope, Benedict largely avoided such targeting of individuals. The attack on dissidents was, it seems, his master’s bidding.
As John Paul’s health failed, Ratzinger stepped into his shoes ever more to become prominent as the spokesperson for Catholic orthodoxy, fearless in attacking those aspects of secular culture that he saw as wrong-headed. In 2003, for example, he described civil partnerships for same-sex couples as “the legislation of evil”.
He talked often of his desire to return to the Bavarian village of Pentling, near Regensburg, to take up again his theological writings. If he could have chosen a way to spend his time, it would have been reading, researching and writing about Catholicism. To that end, he tried three times to retire after suffering a stroke and then heart complications – which eventually required him to have a pacemaker fitted – but he was persuaded by a now physically needy John Paul to stay at his side.
When the Polish pontiff died in April 2005 after a prolonged and very public battle with Parkinson’s disease, it fell to Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, to lead the tributes, organise the funeral and open the conclave to choose a new pope. He performed all three duties impeccably, so that to his fellow cardinals he suddenly appeared the obvious candidate, though he had not been regarded as the frontrunner beforehand.
No cardinal will ever admit to wanting to be pope, but, had he ever harboured hopes, Ratzinger must surely have concluded, with his 78th birthday almost upon him, that his moment had passed. As well as his age and indifferent health, there was a chorus of demands from many influential voices in the worldwide Catholic church for a radical change of direction. And yet, against the predictions of most commentators, it was Benedict who emerged from the Sistine Chapel after just two days of voting (which counts as quick in Catholic terms) as the oldest incoming pope since Clement XII in 1730 and only the second non-Italian in almost half a millennium.
This reluctant but dutiful figure was undeniably chosen by his fellow cardinal electors as the continuity candidate. They were not ready, yet, to listen to the resurgent chorus of demand for reform. Many also saw him as a caretaker, the epitome of steady-as-she-goes in Catholicism. And that was, more or less, what happened.
Yet the cardinals may have miscalculated over the true personality of Joseph Ratzinger. In 2005, he was largely seen through the filter of his long, loyal service as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – or enforcer of theological orthodoxy – under John Paul. Yet thereafter, as leader of the church, he was a man who knew his own mind and felt little compunction to consult with even his closest advisers. Once in sole charge, he was determined to do things his own distinctive way.
On a highly successful trip to Britain in the autumn of 2010, for example, he smiled modestly but winningly at the waiting cameras, reached out of the window to kiss innumerable babies’ heads, and wooed an initially sceptical local church and wider public opinion. Benedict even appeared quietly to enjoy the focus finally being on him, indulging during other visits in the occasional bout of dressing up in long-discarded items from the wardrobes of medieval popes such as the camauro, a red bonnet trimmed with white fur. He may not have had charisma, like his predecessor, the former actor John Paul II, but he undeniably had charm.
That was his style as pope. What about his substance? That is harder to define, or discern. Benedict began with some eye-catching gestures that appeared calculated to emphasise that he was his own man. In September 2005, soon after his election, he spent four hours in discussion with his former friend Küng. Under John Paul II, Küng had been banned from teaching in Catholic universities. Yet at the end of their meeting, Benedict put out a statement praising Küng’s work on dialogue between religions. His guest remained to be convinced. “His stances on church policy,” Küng remarked, “are not my own.”
Benedict was also rather better than John Paul II at giving the impression of listening and consulting. Some spoke of him having a “big tent” approach to the church, wanting to restore harmony to what had become a fractured and fractious world Catholic family. His decision in 2007 to relax restrictions on the use of the Tridentine Rite, a 16th-century form of the mass that had been largely withdrawn, to the distress of many elderly and traditionally minded Catholics in the late 1960s, was another aspect of the same all-inclusive approach (though his move was later reversed by Pope Francis).
As he offered these concessions, Benedict became less “God’s rottweiler”, a tag given to him in his days at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and more a German shepherd, corralling his far-flung flock so as to protect them from the wicked secular world. Yet, as Küng probably had realised, for all the elaborate show of listening, in reality Benedict’s mind was already made up.
This became more evident as his papacy progressed. In those first years he was successful in disarming some liberal Catholics, who had greeted his election with near despair, while disappointing more traditionalist voices who had seen him as their man, likely to clamp down further on what they regarded as modern heresies.
In November 2005, he delighted conservatives by producing guidelines on excluding men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” from entering the priesthood. Studies carried out in the US suggest that as many as a third of Catholic priests are gay, despite their church teaching that homosexuality is, in the words of a letter addressed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986 to Catholic bishops, “a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil”.
But the Vatican then did nothing whatsoever to enforce Benedict’s 2005 ruling. Where’s the strategy, lamented the influential Father Richard John Neuhaus, academic and editor of First Things, an ultra-conservative American publication that had been one of the few pushing for a Ratzinger papacy. Neuhaus confessed to his own “palpable uneasiness” at the way Benedict was conducting himself.
That impatience only deepened when, for Christmas 2005, Benedict produced his first encyclical – or teaching document – which, by tradition, sets the tone for a papacy. The encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (Latin for “God Is Love”), managed in accessible and almost poetic language to extol love without adding any of the familiar Catholic strictures about the “proper” context of marriage, heterosexuality and procreation. “Sex, please, we’re Catholics” was the considered response to the document of the influential weekly the Tablet. With hindsight, however, though inclusive and attractive, Deus Caritas Est did not advance one jot the debate within Catholicism about sexual ethics. Again, Benedict was signalling he was listening, when in fact he was not.
The first three years of his papacy saw Benedict continuing to confound his critics and attract broadly positive if muted reviews. He never tried to revive his predecessor’s travelling mission, but chose instead, as befitted a man fast approaching his 80th birthday, to concentrate his energy on a smaller number of carefully chosen pastoral visits to Catholic communities mainly in Europe, the focus of another hallmark of his papacy, his crusade against the tide of secularism which he believed was destroying the continent.
He managed, for the most part, to restore calm to Catholic-Muslim relations two months after his controversial Regensburg lecture, when he visited Turkey. There had been fears about demonstrations and even attempts on his life, but Benedict showed great diplomatic aplomb and presence as, in a last-minute addition to his programme, he joined Muslim clerics in silent prayer in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. This was only the second time a pope had entered a mosque.
Others, though, were not so easily assuaged. In September 2000, when John Paul was already seriously incapacitated, the Vatican had issued a document, Dominus Iesus, widely credited as being written by Ratzinger. It described all other religions as “gravely deficient” compared with Catholicism. Even as pope, Benedict retained the habit – developed during his long years in academia and the unworldly environment of church bureaucracy – of stating baldly what he believed to be the core truth of the superiority of Catholic teaching and tradition, regardless of the hurt it might cause to other churches and those from other faiths.
If he did learn from 2005 onwards to exercise a little more tact – as seen during his visit to Turkey – there was always the lingering suspicion that he was just being polite, and that his thinking had not really changed. He was undoubtedly sincere about wanting to foster better relationships with other churches and faiths, notably reaching out to Lutherans in his native Germany, but never to the point where he was prepared to – in his terms – compromise Catholic doctrine.
And, even as a generally conciliatory pope, he could still on occasion be very high-handed with other religious traditions. A good example was his haste and lack of tact, in October 2009, in offering to those Anglicans who could not bear to be governed by female bishops special terms for conversion to Catholicism. It was left to a clearly uncomfortable archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his equally uneasy Catholic counterpart in England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, to attempt to smooth ecumenical waters when they appeared at a press conference in the wake of Benedict’s out-of-the-blue announcement. Their demeanour made plain that neither had been properly consulted on the pope’s offer to dissident Anglicans, and that neither welcomed it.
The limitations of the team surrounding the pope were exposed by the resurgence of the paedophile priest scandal in 2009. Father Federico Lombardi, head of the papal press office, tried unsuccessfully to shift the focus on to an overzealous media.
Benedict, to his credit, did not try to bury his head in the sand over the scandal. When details had first emerged in the late 1980s in the US and Canada, some reports ended up on the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Later, it was alleged that he had failed to acknowledge them, but the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, presented a different picture – of Ratzinger wanting to set up full investigations into accusations against a number of senior clerics – including Schönborn’s own predecessor, Cardinal Hans Groër, later exposed as a paedophile – but being blocked by other senior figures around the now grievously ailing John Paul II, notably the secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
By 2001, the reports of abuse and cover-up had grown so serious and so widespread that Ratzinger was placed in charge of coordinating the church’s response. His first act was to demand that every accusation be reported to him – in an effort to stop local bishops sweeping reports of abuse under the carpet, paying off victims with out-of-court settlements that bought their silence, and then reassigning the culprits to new parishes where they could carry on preying on the young. However, John Paul’s inner circle continued to limit Ratzinger’s ability to act in his new role.
One of the most notorious cases was that of the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel. A close friend of John Paul and Sodano, Maciel was accused of sexually assaulting youngsters in his order, and of having fathered children. Ratzinger pressed for him to be removed as head of the Legion, but was blocked. It was only when he became pope that he was able to take decisive action, ordering Maciel in 2006 to restrict himself to a life of prayer. The priest, who died in 2008, was not, however, forced to face his accusers in court.
It is an example of how Benedict went further than before in tackling the abuse scandal, but not far enough. In March 2009, he sent an unprecedented personal letter of apology to the Catholic church in Ireland after a new set of revelations about the scale of abuse there. “You have suffered grievously,” he said to Irish victims, “and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”
His efforts, though sustained, were insufficient in their scope. There remained a tendency – clearly expressed in his letter to the Irish – to lay the blame on the local bishops and therefore to distance the Vatican from any responsibility. In such a centralised, hierarchical structure as world Catholicism, the buck should always end up in Rome.
Benedict was equally reluctant as pope to move decisively against those senior churchmen accused of complicity in the cover-up, including the disgraced archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, who retained a post in the Vatican, and the Irish primate, Cardinal Seán Brady, who refused to resign after it was revealed he had attended, as a young priest, a meeting where two young victims of abuse took vows of silence about their attacker, a priest who went on to rape other youngsters.
Try as he undoubtedly did, with sincerity and anguish, Benedict was perhaps too old and too set in the ways of the church he had grown up with to contemplate more radical change. And that judgment can extend to the whole of his papacy. On many doctrinal matters, he had no desire to be a reformer, but even where he clearly acknowledged the need for change, new thinking and new initiatives, too often he simply failed to deliver.
An unattractive court of ultra-traditionalists gathered around him in retirement, when he lived in the Vatican as pope emeritus. They tried to trade on his authority to derail the reforms that Pope Francis quickly introduced once in office to tackle the problems Benedict could not quite face. But the two popes remained on good terms, while the abundant evidence of Benedict’s physical and intellectual decline in those last years made it impossible for those who tried to set him up an alternative pope in the church to gain any real traction.
Georg died in 2020.
• Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, born 16 April 1927; died 31 December 2022