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The death of Benedict XVI marks the passing of a ‘Pope of Ironies’…

Pope Benedict XVI, a gifted intellectual who aspired to be a teaching pope but who saw his papacy sometimes capsized by managerial crises, and who became the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, died Dec. 31 at the age of 95, after his successor, Pope Francis, had announced his final illness to the world the previous Wednesday.

Benedict XVI spent his final years in retirement on Vatican grounds, where he remained largely true to a vow delivered when he announced his resignation in 2013 to be “hidden from the world.”

The Vatican has announced that Benedict’s body will be placed in St. Peter’s Basilica beginning the morning of Jan. 2 for the faithful to pay their respects. It will mark the first time a public farewell has been staged for an emeritus pope rather than one who died in office.

From a strictly PR point of view, Benedict may have been the unluckiest man to take over leadership of the Catholic Church in centuries. Sandwiched between two celebrity popes in John Paul II and Francis, the shy and cerebral Benedict was perhaps always destined to be under-appreciated.

With the benefit of hindsight, Benedict XVI now seems a towering “Pope of Ironies,” with three in particular standing out.

For most of his career, the theologian and prelate who became Benedict XVI had been seen as the great “Doctor No” of the Catholic Church from his perch as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar. There was no controversy in Catholicism for a quarter-century in which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger didn’t play a leading role, usually as the disciplinarian taking wayward theologians to task.

Yet once he became pope, Benedict pioneered “Affirmative Orthodoxy,” meaning the most upbeat and positive presentation possible of classic Catholic teaching.  The idea was to emphasize the Catholic “yes,” rather than the church’s traditional catalogue of “no’s.”

“Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions. It’s a positive option,” Benedict said in a 2006 interview. “We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say we have a positive idea to offer.”

In other words, “Doctor No” as doctrinal watchdog became “Father Yes” as pope.

In addition, Benedict was little invested in management by temperament or training, having once openly confessed that “I don’t have the charism of governance.” He paid a steep price, not least with the surreal “Vatican leaks” affair that marred the latter stages of his papacy and, in the eyes of some observers, propelled Benedict towards resignation.

Yet in a second grand irony, this non-manager also launched historic management reforms on two key sources of scandal for Catholicism, child sexual abuse and the Vatican’s decidedly mixed record on money. He was the first pope to embrace a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse, and the first to open the Vatican to outside secular inspection of its accounts.

Benedict faced down strong internal opposition to do so, and by the end of his reign officials opposed to reform on either front had been driven largely underground. Though incomplete at the time his papacy ended, both these house-cleaning operations have been carried forward under Pope Francis.

In perhaps the most notable irony of all, a pontiff sometimes seen as arrogant and aloof was actually a man of striking personal humility.

One for-instance came immediately after he was elected, when Benedict insisted on returning to his Vatican apartment to gather his things and carry them back to the papal apartments. Before he left the building, he knocked on the doors of the other cardinals who lived there – not to say goodbye, since he’d obviously be seeing them again, but to thank the nuns who did the cooking and cleaning for being such good neighbors.

When Francis did much the same thing, returning to a Rome hotel for clergy to pack his bag and pay his bill, it became a sensation. Benedict never drew the same applause, in part because the narrative of “God’s Rottweiler” surrounding him made it difficult.

Of course, Benedict’s voluntary abdication of power was arguably the single most humble act by a pope in centuries, if not of all time.

Had his own wishes been honored, he would have been even less in the limelight in retirement. Aides revealed the former pontiff originally hoped to return to his native Bavaria, but allowed himself to be persuaded to remain in Rome surrounded by many of the trappings of the papacy.

A polarizing figure for most of his life, Benedict XVI seemed to gain sympathy towards the end even from former critics, in part for handling his post-retirement years with dignity and discretion. Despite whatever differences he may have felt with Pope Francis, he pledged loyalty and mostly stayed out of the fray.

Italian journalist Ettore Bernabei once described Benedict XVI as an “affable and humble warrior for truth.” For most of his life, the “warrior” part of that formula seemed to loom largest; it was only in retirement, and now perhaps in death, that Benedict’s affability and humility are also finally getting equal billing.

The shadow of the Nazis

Born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, on Holy Saturday, the future pontiff spent his earliest years in a small Bavarian town called Marktl-am-Inn, just across the border from Austria and the city that enchanted his youth, Salzburg.

He became a huge fan of Salzburg’s native son Mozart, once saying that his music “contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

He was the youngest of three children in a lower middle class household, and his parents were named Joseph and Mary. Joseph was a policeman, while Mary stayed at home during some periods of her life, and worked as a cook in bed and breakfast establishments in others.

The main historical force that shaped Ratzinger’s youth was the rise of National Socialism in Germany. He was six when Hitler came to power in 1933, and was 18 when the Second World War ended in 1945.

The Ratzingers had no sympathy for the Nazis. Ratzinger recalled in 1997 that his family belonged to a political tradition in Bavaria that looked to Austria and France rather than Prussia, and therefore was appalled by Hitler’s crude form of German nationalism.

The future pope’s father on more than one occasion expressed criticism of the Brownshirts, and concern about the potential implications of those views triggered a series of relocations to progressively less significant Bavarian assignments, until in 1937 he retired and the family moved to the Bavarian city of Traunstein.

Nazi brutality touched the Ratzinger family personally. A cousin with Down’s Syndrome, who in 1941 was 14 years old, was taken away in that year by the Nazi authorities for “therapy.” Not long afterwards, the family received word that he was dead, presumably one of the “undesirables” eliminated.

Ratzinger later cited the episode to illustrate the danger of ideological systems that define certain classes of human beings as unworthy of protection.

In 1941, when Ratzinger was 14, membership in the Hitler Youth became compulsory, and both he and his older brother Georg were enrolled. Yet he did not attend activities, and a sympathetic teacher allowed him to qualify for a reduction in tuition even though he did not have the mandatory Hitler Youth registration card.

In 1943, after Joseph had entered the seminary, he and his entire class were conscripted into the German army, spending most of his time as part of anti-aircraft battalion guarding a BMW plant outside Munich. In a 1993 interview with Time, Raztinger said he never fired a gun “in anger” during his military service, and eventually deserted. He ended up in an American prisoner of war camp, and was eventually released to continue his studies for the priesthood.

A gifted theologian

In the early stages of his career, Ratzinger distinguished himself as one of the most talented Catholic minds of his generation. He served as a theological expert during the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, when he was part of a broad progressive majority seeking to bring Catholicism into the modern era.

Ratzinger’s 1968 book Introduction to Christianity was widely considered one of the classics of the immediate-post Vatican II era. It was no legalistic manual stuffed with rules and regulations; it was a meditation on faith that reached into the depths of human experience, a book that dared to walk naked before doubt and disbelief in order to discover the truth of what it means to be a modern Christian. Many progressives found it exhilarating.

Later, however, Ratzinger began to fear that the updating launched by Vatican II was turning in to capitulation to a rapidly shifting cultural landscape, and he began to be associated with steadily more conservative positions. By the time Pope John Paul II tapped him in 1981 as the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, it was seen as a choice for a robust defense of Catholic teaching and tradition.

Over the next-quarter century, there was no Catholic controversy in which Ratzinger didn’t have a starring role, from debates over liberation theology and the “option for the poor” in Latin America to hot-button issues of sexual morality such as homosexuality in Europe and North America.

His polarizing profile made him a rare commodity in the normally shadowy world of the Roman Curia as a media star.

When Ratzinger turned seventy in 1997, two of the biggest secular publishing houses in Germany brought out new editions of his books, his picture appeared on the front cover of the largest mass-market news magazine in Italy, and virtually every newspaper and TV network in Europe prepared extensive profiles. Just by virtue of having a birthday, Ratzinger was news.

After being elected pope, the Italians quickly dubbed him “Papa-Razi,” a play on the term paparazzi for those photographers who trail celebrities around, and the term has a curious fittingness for Ratzinger’s celebrity status. He’s perhaps the first pope of modern times who truly needed no introduction.

By 2005, when John Paul II died, Ratzinger was widely seen as the Vatican’s enforcer, the Church’s most dogged policeman on behalf of doctrinal orthodoxy. He was the intellectual architect of John Paul’s almost 27-year pontificate, which most senior churchmen regarded as stunningly successful, and was swept into the papacy himself on a strong continuity vote.

Even as pope, Benedict made time to indulge his intellectual interests. He published three volumes on the life of Jesus of Nazareth in 2007, 2011 and 2012, describing them as private theological works rather than official papal teaching.

In a vintage splash of modesty, Benedict invited criticism of his work in the foreword to the first volume.

“Everyone is free to contradict me,” he wrote. “I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”

Affirmative Orthodoxy

As pope, Benedict XVI was never the great scold of popular imagination. There was no real purge of dissident theologians or bishops, and no new anathemas on matters of faith or morals. Instead he tried to pioneer “affirmative orthodoxy,” meaning the most positive presentation possible of traditional Catholic positions.

Even some of the pope’s fiercest critics expressed admiration for the effort.

When Benedict released his encyclical Deus Caritas Est in 2005 on human love, applause came from Swiss theologian Hans Küng, an erstwhile colleague of Joseph Ratzinger and a leading voice for liberal Catholic dissent.

“Papa Ratzinger takes on with his inimitable theological style a richness of themes of eros and agape, of love and charity,” Küng said. He called the encyclical “a good sign” and expressed hope that it would be “received warmly, with respect.”

Benedict’s idée fixe was the relationship between reason and faith and the role of faith communities in secular democratic societies, a theme he presented in four landmark speeches considered classics of modern papal thought: at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006; at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in 2008; at Westminster Hall in London in 2010; and at the Bundestag in Germany in 2011.

If Benedict never became the media darling his predecessor was, he still fared strikingly well on the public stage. His trips drew enthusiastic crowds, and turnout at his public audiences actually exceeded John Paul’s numbers. He even developed a popular touch, launching his own Twitter account and inspiring a children’s book purportedly written by his cat, Chico.

In April 2005, shortly before the death of John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger penned a memorable meditation for the Vatican’s annual Good Friday service insisting on the necessity of confronting the “filth” in the Church.

As pope, he followed through. Benedict appointed people of personal integrity to senior positions; he committed the church to “zero tolerance” on sexual abuse and disciplined clergy previously regarded as untouchable; and he launched a financial glasnost, including opening the Vatican for the first time to outside inspection of its anti-money-laundering policies by cooperating with the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering authority, Moneyval.

While most observers believe he left behind important unfinished business on both sexual abuse and finances, few doubt that he moved the Church further down the path towards reform than it was when he took over.

Management breakdowns

Those positive stories were always difficult to tell, as perceptions of Benedict XVI were repeatedly capsized by a series of management breakdowns.

Early on, Benedict’s Regensburg speech touched off Islamic protest because of his quotation of a Byzantine emperor who linked Muhammad with violence. Churches were firebombed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while an Italian nun was shot and killed in Somalia. On the one-year anniversary, a missionary priest was killed in Turkey.

It was a harbinger of things to come. In 2011, Italian journalists Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari published a 300-page book documenting the most notorious crises, including:

  • The massive sexual abuse scandals, which exploded in the United States in 2002 then swept across Europe in 2010. That second wave brought critical examination of Benedict XVI’s personal record, including a case when he was archbishop of Munich in the late 1970s in which a pedophile priest slipped through the cracks, and other instances on his Vatican watch when the institution dragged its heels. As pope, there was persistent criticism that Benedict’s apologies and meetings with victims were not matched by action, including holding errant bishops accountable.
  • Benedict XVI’s decision in 2007 to dust off the old Latin Mass, including a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews. The Vatican eventually revised the prayer to satisfy Jewish concerns, raising the question of why somebody didn’t think about doing so before the tempest erupted.
  • Lifting the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops in 2009, including one who denied that the Nazis ever used gas chambers and claimed the historical evidence is “hugely against” Adolf Hitler being responsible for the death of 6 million Jews. The affair brought an anguished personal letter from Benedict to the bishops of the world apologizing for the way it was handled.
  • Comments made by Benedict aboard the papal plane to Africa in 2009 to the effect that condoms make AIDS worse. Among other things, those words brought a first censure of a pope from the parliament of a European nation, in this case Belgium, while the Spanish government airlifted a million condoms to Africa in protest.

It’s a measure of how bad things sometimes were that this is far from a complete list.

The authors also could have included Benedict’s 2007 trip to Brazil, where he seemed to suggest that indigenous persons should be grateful to European colonizers; blowback to a 2009 decree moving the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood; and the surreal “Boffo case” in 2010, featuring charges that senior papal aides had manufactured fake police documents to smear an Italian Catholic journalist, including the claim that he harassed the girlfriend of a man with whom he wanted to carry on a gay affair.

This pattern reached a crescendo with the notorious “Vatican leaks” affair in 2012 involving a tidal wave of secret documents that appeared in the Italian media, the most serious featuring allegations of financial corruption and cronyism. An investigation ended with the arrest, trial, conviction and pardon of Paolo Gabriele, a married Italian layman who had served as Benedict’s butler since 2006, for being the mole.

To many observers, the affair captured the Vatican at its most repugnant, fostering perceptions of cover-ups, infighting and disarray.

Frustration over this record helped make the papal election of March 2013 one of the most anti-establishment conclaves of at least the last century, and helps explain why many cardinals were prepared to embrace a Latin American and complete Vatican outsider in the Cardinal of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Benedict XVI largely steered clear of geopolitics, rarely standing on the front lines of history like John Paul II. His focus was more on the church’s internal life, calling it to a stronger sense of traditional Catholic identity vis-à-vis a highly secular age. In that sense, Benedict XVI consolidated the more conservative, “evangelical” direction set by John Paul, and now to some extent being rethought under Francis.

Though he was not primarily interested in knocking heads, Benedict nonetheless could flex disciplinary muscle.

A crackdown was launched of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, the main umbrella group for leaders of women’s orders in the United States; liberal theologians were censured, including several high-profile Irish priests and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley in the United States; and American priest Roy Bourgeois was excommunicated over his support for women’s ordination.

Benedict repeatedly denounced same-sex marriage, radical feminism and an “ideology of gender,” triggering blowback from women’s groups, secular liberals and the more progressive wing of his own flock. He steered liturgical practice, a special passion, in a more traditional direction.

Most famously, Benedict in 2007 authorized wider celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, making it an “extraordinary form” of the Catholic Mass alongside the “ordinary form” in the vernacular languages. That decision would later be repealed by Pope Francis.

At the same time, some aspects of his teaching also irritated the right, including his critique of free-market economics – he famously described both communism and capitalism as “failed ideologies” during a trip to Brazil in 2007 – and a strong environmental emphasis for which he was even dubbed the “Green Pope.”

Historic Reforms

Despite the recurrent pattern of management scandals and failures, Benedict XVI was also the architect of historic reforms on both clerical sexual abuse and also financial misconduct.

On abuse, it had been then-Cardinal Ratzinger who defended the American “zero tolerance” policy in 2002 when it ran into stiff opposition from other quarters in the Vatican. As pope, Benedict wrote expedited procedures for laicizing abuser priests into universal church law, at one point authorizing the expulsion of more than 400 accused abusers from the priesthood in a single year.

Benedict also became the first pope to meet with victims of clerical abuse during his trip to the United States in 2008, meeting with a small group of survivors selected by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston at the residence of the papal ambassador to the US in Washington, D.C. A year later he would become the first pope to devote an entire pastoral letter to the abuse scandals in his missive to the Catholics of Ireland.

Benedict did not escape criticism for his response to the abuse crisis, including repeated accusations that he mishandled a handful of cases as the Archbishop of Munich in the late 1970s and early 1980s, charges which Ratzinger and his defenders always denied. While even his most ardent supporters would concede that Benedict XVI left considerable unfinished business on the abuse scandals, even his most determined critics likewise would have to stipulate that the clean-up nevertheless began on his watch.

On finances, Benedict XVI became the first pope in history to open the Vatican’s finances to outside secular inspection when he decided to participate in Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering and financing of terrorism watchdog group. Periodic Moneyval reports have become one of the primary spurs to ongoing reform in the Vatican, in part because of the threat of being “blacklisted” and frozen out of international transactions.

Benedict also created the Financial Information Authority in 2010, creating the Vatican’s very first own internal anti-money laundering agency. In one of his final acts as pope, he also approved the appointment of German banker and lawyer Ernst von Freyberg as president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called “Vatican bank.” It was under Freyberg that most observers believe the clean-up of the Vatican bank began in earnest, resulting in the most thoroughly reformed of the Vatican’s various financial institutions.

A surprise resignation

Benedict was never one to cling to power for its own sake, and he would end his papacy with a spectacular demonstration of the point.

During his 24-year term as John Paul’s top doctrinal advisor, he asked permission twice to retire – in 1997, and again in 2002 – to return full-time to the life of the mind. One hypothesis was that he would become the Vatican librarian, another that he would return to his native Bavaria. He told friends his hope was to pen a volume on the Catholic liturgy.

John Paul refused permission both times, saying he couldn’t do without his closest aide.

After having become pope himself, Benedict dropped hints at several points that he was open to the idea of voluntarily relinquishing the office.

In a 2010 book-length interview with a German journalist, Benedict said that under some circumstances a pope would have “not only the right, but the duty” to resign. Twice he visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V in Aquila in northern Italy. In 1294, Celestine had become the last pope to freely renounce the office outside the context of a schism. On a 2009 trip to Aquila, Benedict actually left the woolen pallium he wore during his 2005 inauguration Mass on Celestine’s tomb.

Those bits of foreshadowing, however, did not make Feb. 11, 2013, any less stunning, when Benedict used a meeting of cardinals for sainthood causes to deliver his surprise resignation announcement in typically elegant Latin prose.

American Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who attended that day’s consistory and witnessed the announcement live, would later say that he sat in the room for some time afterwards, unable to comprehend what he had just heard.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Stafford said. “I kept playing the Latin over in my mind to be sure I had heard correctly.”

Benedict said at the time that he was stepping aside because “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Unconvinced by that, a torrent of speculation ensued, much of it in the Italian press, as to the real reason for the resignation – the machinations of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican, perhaps, or fear of blackmail from more leaked documents, or weariness at contending with liberal bishops who were undercutting his agenda.

Benedict never fed any of those rumors. Instead he retired to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery on Vatican grounds, spending his mornings in the study that he loved, taking afternoon excursions into the nearby Vatican gardens, and receiving old friends and visitors.

When his resignation was announced, some feared that having two living popes might be a prescription for schism, as Benedict could emerge as a rival source of authority for those disenchanted with the new pontiff.

For the most part, that scenario never materialized.

A handful of traditionalist Catholic writers unhappy with Francis’ policies tried to argue that Benedict’s resignation was invalid and that he remained the pope, something Benedict dismissed as “absurd” in a rare comment to a journalist.

During a tumultuous Synod of Bishops in October 2014 there were reports that a bloc of conservative prelates went to see Benedict to appeal for his help, but the emeritus pope was content to allow the Vatican to issue denials and never involved himself in the synod’s business.

Though Benedict himself rarely broke his silence, the same was not true of German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, his devoted aide and confidante, who often spoke about his mentor’s situation and legacy in retirement, in a sense acting as his outlet to the world.

For instance, Gänswein made waves in 2016 by suggesting Benedict’s resignation had created, de facto, an “expanded Petrine ministry” with “an active member and a contemplative member.”

‘You made us think’

In the end, the first draft of history about this Pope of Ironies perhaps boils down to the following summary: Benedict XVI was a magnificent public intellectual, a mixed bag as CEO, withdrawn as a statesman, and a church leader whose “politics of identity” cheered some and alarmed others.

Whatever else one might say, no one disputes that Benedict XVI was a keen cultural critic. He asked searching questions and offered his own provocative answers, proving that institutional Catholicism still has intellectual gas left in the tank.

In that sense, then British Prime Minister David Cameron may have provided the best epitaph while bidding the pontiff farewell at the Birmingham airport on Sept. 20, 2010, after Benedict’s four-day swing in Scotland and England – a trip that defied forecasts of disaster and left a much more favorable impression of the pontiff behind.

“Holy Father,” Cameron told a smiling Benedict, in words that every intellectual yearns to hear, “you made us sit up and think!”

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