Former Pope Benedict XVI, who has died at the age of 95, was a complex figure, and the fact that one can accurately, say, “former Pope”, is perhaps indicative of that complexity.
Benedict XVI dies as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, because he was the first pontiff, since Gregory XII, 600 years ago, in 1415, to abdicate the papacy. There were other papal renunciations, or abdications, between the 10th and 15th Centuries, but they are contested.
Benedict XVI, did so, for reasons of health, choosing to remain Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, rather than going back to his own name, at birth, Joseph Ratzinger.
That in itself, may also tell us something, about the man’s relationship with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
By choosing to become Pope Emeritus, rather than reverting to Joseph Ratzinger, was he perhaps, bowing to the belief that a Pope is divinely chosen, or at least, his choosing divinely guided, and once chosen, the position is for life, until God himself calls the occupant.
His abdication was the second surprise to the Church, the first, that he had become Pope, in the first place. That may have surprised even him.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was appointed, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by then Pope John Paul II, in 1981. The position, formerly known as the Holly Office, and in the Sixteenth Century, the Roman Inquisition, defined Catholic doctrine.
Inevitably, Cardinal Ratzinger, was soon referred to as the enforcer, and nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler.” For anyone needing an explanation, Rottweilers are a breed of large, fierce hunting dogs. That too, may perhaps point to his understanding of the Church’s doctrine, or does it?
Ratzinger was an implacable servant of the Church, and obediently served, as he no doubt would have seen it, his immediate master, before God, Pope John Paul II. Was God’s Rottweiler, in fact carrying out instructions from his pontiff, rather than, as many saw it, demonstrating his own hardline adherence to the Church’s strict doctrine.
The Catholic Church, is in many ways a broad church, with many shades of opinion, on how to interpret doctrine. Ratzinger, had been, for a number of years, on the liberal wing of the argument, until he was not.
He had become disillusioned with the direction the modernisers wanted to take the church. The new direction moved him closer to another influential, conservative figure, the polish born, Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II.
A studious man, with an academic bent, he had expressed a desire to retire to the Bavarian village of Pentling, to concentrate on reading and writing about the Catholic church, but was persuaded by now John Paul II, to stay in post, and was instead raised further in the Church’s hierarchy.
At the death of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was not on anyone’s list, as a possible candidate for Pope, threw himself into the work of putting into place, the complex arrangements of electing a new pontiff. This apparently brought him to the attention of his brother cardinals, who were dully impressed, and he found himself Benedict XVI.
We will never know, if he wished, or had ever wished, for the elevation, but once in it, he demonstrated an independence from his hugely charismatic predecessor.
The liberal, modernising wing of the church, which had feared the wrath of “God’s Rottweiler”, were to be surprised, and perhaps relieved, when, rather than bite, the Rottweiler, demonstrated a shepherd’s instincts instead, while the conservatives, who had hoped for fierce barks, that would silence their liberal colleagues’ yapping, were left disgruntled.
It is the hardliners however, who were most reassured. Yes, the new pontiff showed a desire, and willingness to reconcile opposing views, but he also maintained his conservative predecessors’ ruling on important issues facing the church.
His first encyclical, in 2005, a document which traditionally defines a papacy, was more spiritual, than dogmatic. On marriage, and heterosexual sex, Deus Caritas Est, or God is love, placed a greater emphasis on love, and less on the rules governing sex and sexuality.
Yes, he had denounced homosexuality, among aspirant candidates to the priesthood, as having “a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil,” but the hardliners had wished, and expected more cracking of the whip, from God’s Rottweiler, not warm emollients on love.
For Catholics, as for non Catholics in general, Benedict XVI, did little to bring to account members of the clergy, guilty of the rape and sexual abuse of children, and did too much to shield them. But in this, he was very much in tune, with the Church’s establishment. The more reform minded Francis I, has done most to confront these crimes, than any of his predecessors.
For Africa, and especially Rwanda, where the Catholic Church, was to put it mildly, part of the genocidal establishment, that culminated in the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, Pope Benedict was a remote figure, who showed little, to apparently no interest. Perhaps due to his ailing health, he preferred to concentrate on Europe, where he believed Catholicism in danger from liberalisation within the Church.
Then, on 28th February, 2013, he caused consternation within the Church’s establishment, by announcing his abdication, on grounds of ill health, becoming Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Joseph Ratzinger, was born in 1927 Germany, in the Bavarian village of Marktl, to devout Catholic parents, Maria, a hotel cook, and Joseph, a police commissioner. Joseph Aloisius, was the third of the couple’s three children, and their second son. The piety of the family, meant that his and his siblings’ lives were a little different, from their contemporaries. The future pontiff, grew up wishing to be a priest.
Ratzinger senior was opposed to the Nazis, and in 1941, Joseph Aloisius’s cousin, who had Down Syndrome, was murdered by the Nazis, their ideology directing the killing of those they considered to be inferior members of humanity.
At sixteen years of age, however, the two Ratzinger boys, were obliged to join the Hitler Youth, which was mandatory.
When World War II, ended, he resumed his studies, and in 1951, both he and his brother Georg, were ordained into the priesthood. George would die in 2020.
There were murmurings of Ratzinger’s position, during the Holocaust of the Jews, by the Nazis, during which six million Jewish people were murdered, but no one ever established any wrongdoing, against him, or even sympathy for Nazism.
There was criticism about his 1997, childhood memoirs, Milestones, in which he detailed the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church, under the Nazis, but had nothing to say, about the suffering, and murder of six million Jewish people.
The Vatican News, broke the news of Benedict’s death, by bidding, “Farewell to Benedict XVI: Humble Worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” That is probably how he would wish to be remembered.