Benedict XVI was considered a dominant intellectual figure in Roman Catholicism as it moved toward more conservative positions in the 40 years before assuming the papacy. In 1981, he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the council — known during the 16th century as the Spanish Inquisition — that promotes and enforces church doctrine.
His fierce resistance to what he saw as campaigns to secularize the church, promote women as priests, «normalize» homosexuality, and foster a liberal Latin American stream of Catholicism known as liberation theology led him to be characterized as the «Rottweiler.» of God».
Among his most consequential actions as prefect was issuing a formal letter in May 2001 that was widely interpreted as stating that investigations into allegations of clergy sexual abuse were confidential church matters not subject to review by clergy. civil law enforcement agencies. Critics, and lawyers for victims of such abuse, often pointed to the letter as proof that the church was trying to cover up the growing scandal.
The consequences dogged Benedict from the beginning of his papacy.
In 2005, his first year as pope, he was accused in a lawsuit of having personally covered up the abuse of three children by a priest in Texas. He avoided the lawsuit by requesting and receive diplomatic immunity from the Department of State.
“He could walk and minister to the victims, which he did, and I think it was courageous and profound, but he couldn’t change the ultimate elements of the Catholic Church that allow abuse,” Michael D’Antonio said. , author of «Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Age of Catholic Scandal.»
Benedict apologized in February for any «serious misconduct» in his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases, but denied committing any specific or personal wrongdoing after an independent report by a German law firm criticized his actions in four cases. while he was Archbishop of Munich.
Benedict’s conservatism extended to the public face of the church. In addition to his native German, he was fluent in Italian, French, English, and Latin, the latter of which he tried to revive in church ceremony.
In 2007, he issued an official document allowing the performance of the Tridentine Mass, also known as the Traditional Latin Mass, in European and North African countries whose histories had been shaped by Latin. The traditional Mass had been one of the prominent casualties of the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, when Pope John XXIII liberalized church practices, liturgy, and relations with other denominations.
Often quoted as rebuking more liberal theologians who argued that the council’s reforms were a rejection of the church’s past practices, Benedict reinstated many of the latent symbols of church power: he wore fur-lined robes and jewel-studded rings, and revived the papal tradition of wearing bright red leather shoes, symbolizing the bloody feet of Jesus as he was sent to his crucifixion.
Such symbols were on a par with the massive visual statement the church made through its majestic churches and cathedrals and its unrivaled collection of great works of art, Benedict said.
«All the great works of art, the cathedrals, the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid baroque churches, are a luminous sign of God and, therefore, are truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.» said in 2008.
Benedict XVI was 78 years old and already frail in 2005 when he became pope, the oldest pope elected in nearly three centuries, and by February 11, 2013, when he was 85, he had had enough.
«After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strength due to advanced age is no longer adequate for a proper exercise of the Petrine ministry,» he told a Vatican meeting with his cardinals, referring to the Catholic doctrine of papal primacy. «Strength that in recent months has deteriorated in me to the point that I have had to recognize my inability to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.»
And with that, Benedict gave three weeks’ notice that he would be stepping down at the end of the month.
Benedict took the title of pope emeritus and continued to wear papal white. But he returned the Fisherman’s Ring, which is traditionally ceremonially destroyed with a hammer blow after the death of a Pope. And he asked to be called Father Benedicto.
The former pope also maintained a cordial relationship with Francis. Both men were beaming when they embraced on December 8, 2015, before opening the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the start of the Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee. In June 2016, Francis kissed Benedict on both cheeks to help celebrate the 65th anniversary of the former pope’s ordination.
Their relationship was fictionalized in the 2019 film «The Two Popes,» an adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play «The Pope.» The film shows Benedict XVI secretly summoning Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the liberal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who would become Pope Francis, to the Vatican to reveal that he intended to resign.
During a series of conversations, Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins, confesses that he can no longer hear the words of God and his belief that perhaps Bergoglio should succeed him as the only man who could destroy the Vatican bureaucracy and reform the institution.
Change is needed, says Benedict, but «change is compromising,» and he is incapable of committing. “Throughout my life, I’ve been alone, but never alone, until now,” he says.