Pope Benedict XVI set a couple of precedents in recent months. He became the first social media pontiff, opening a Twitter account late last year. And as of Monday, he is the first pope since the middle ages to resign.
These nontraditional moves aside, though, Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, was a fiercely conservative Catholic leader who failed to challenge a widespread child sex abuse scandal in the church. His papal legacy will include the maintenance of a system of impunity for abusers of the church’s most defenseless and innocent members. The Guardian’s Rome correspondent John Hooper noted:
The abuse scandals dominated his seven years as leader of the world’s Catholics. Before his accession, there had been scandals in the United States and Ireland. But in 2010, evidence of clerical sex abuse was made public in a succession of countries in continental Europe, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Benedict’s native Germany.
The pope was himself affected by one of these scandals. It emerged that, while he was archbishop of Munich, a known molester was quietly re-assigned to duties that, in time, allowed him to return to pastoral duties and make contact with young people.
The pope’s failure to properly confront the darkest aspect of his church was particularly disturbing to critics who remember that, while serving under his predecessor John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had overseen the Vatican department charged with addressing sex abuse cases. According to Hooper, “the future Pope Benedict personally read much of the testimony and, say his apologists, he was deeply shocked and moved by what he learned.”
Commentators already reviewing Benedict XVI’s papacy have highlighted the paradox that as a fiercely rigorous theological scholar and doctrinal purist, he earned the epithet “God’s rottweiler,” “But after several years into his new job he showed that he not only did not bite but barely even barked,” noted Reuters.
He also tallied a decidedly mixed record when it came to interfaith relations. According to Reuters, “Israel’s chief rabbi praised Benedict’s inter-faith outreach and wished him good health.” But Benedict angered Jews, noted Hooper, when he allowed the wider use by Catholics of an old liturgy that includes a Good Friday plea that Jews be “delivered from their darkness.”
Benedict had served in the Hitler Youth as a child when it was compulsory in Germany, but has vociferously condemned his country’s past treatment of Jewish people. According to Reuters, “he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jews, died there during World War Two.” Yet, controversially, he lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Britain’s Richard Williamson. “The Vatican said Benedict had been unaware of Williamson’s views when he acted,” wrote the Guardian’s Hooper.
In a 2006 lecture he caused outrage when he said that Muslims were “only evil and inhuman.” He attempted to mitigate the damage with a trip to Turkey later that year, during which he prayed in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque with a Turkish Mufti.
In electing Benedict at age 78, the Cardinals had, according to commentators, hoped for a brief, stopgap pope after John Paul II’s long reign. Benedict XVI likely caused more controversy than had been desired. A Twitter account was a thin, modern gloss on a deeply conservative, traditionalist papacy.
A Vatican spokesman said Monday that the pope does not fear schism in the church after his resignation, since his choice to step down was prompted by health concerns, not problems with the papacy. But the betting has already begun over who will take his place. Experts believe a non-European could be chosen. Peter Turkson from Ghana, now head of the Vatican’s justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa’s front-runner. Two Latin American candidates are also looking like strong possibilities — Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the huge diocese of Sao Paolo, or the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, now heading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.