Pope Benedict XVI resigns; what's his legacy?

Catholic Church leader had clear vision despite scandals

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An adult faith, he once said, is not one that “follows the waves of fashion and the latest novelty.”

Most people saw Pope Benedict XVI — who announced Monday he would resign on February 28 for health reasons — as simply a staunch defender of Church orthodoxy.

In fact, he was a complex person, an incisive thinker whose reservations about contemporary culture and love for Mozart and Beethoven would not deter him from his main concern in life: the pursuit of truth.

A humble man, an accomplished theologian and a stern leader, Joseph Ratzinger had been overlooked by many as a serious contender for the papacy.

But, while noticeably different from his Polish predecessor, John Paul II, in terms of personality, he offered continuity to a church orphaned of one of its most charismatic and lasting leaders.

At the same time, current events often diverted that focus on theology. Thus, large parts of his tenure were spent dealing with scandals — first allegations of sexual abuse by priests against young boys, and then a series of reports from across Europe about mistreatment of pupils at church-run schools.

His conservative tendencies also left him the target of rage when non-Catholics felt his comments were defamatory, as was the case in 2006, when he alluded to a historical conversation about Islam being “evil and inhuman.” The pope insisted the comments were taken out of context.

And, in the final months of his tenure, the world was at times more focused on the WikiLeaks scandal — in which the pope’s butler leaked internal information about Vatican workings to Italian media, including hints of an infirm pope being manipulated by Vatican machinations — than on the pope’s theological stances.

Nonetheless, his conservatism on church matters and sex often divided Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Yet even his most outspoken critics could not avoid praising his qualities as a good listener.

“This is not a withdrawn pope who looks to the past,” Hans Kung, a dissident theologian and a fierce opponent of Ratzinger’s ideas said of him after an unexpected meeting between the two in 2005.

Born on April 16, 1927 — a Holy Saturday — in Marktl am Inn, a small town in Bavaria, southern Germany, Joseph Alois Ratzinger was the third and youngest child of Joseph Ratzinger, a police officer, and his wife Maria.

Though his father bitterly resented Nazism, Ratzinger was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a schoolboy seminarian and later in the war was drafted into an anti-aircraft battery.

His brief military career stood in the way of his desire to join the church hierarchy — a desire that apparently first emerged at a very early age.

According to his older brother, Georg, also a priest, Joseph was only 5 years old when he first announced his plan to become a cardinal.

After the war, he studied philosophy and theology at the University of Munich and was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951.

In 1953, he obtained a doctorate in theology with a thesis on St Augustine and became a professor of Freising College in 1958, and at the University of Bonn a year later.

He was only in his 30s when he took part as a consultant in the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 and had just turned 50 when he was consecrated Archbishop of Munich and Freising on May 28, 1977.

Less than a month later he was proclaimed a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II named him the prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, a post that made him the chief “protector of the faith” and which he performed for nearly a quarter of a century.

As dean of the College of Cardinals, he presided over his predecessor’s funeral and also chaired the April conclave that led to his election.

It was during the papal transition period that Ratzinger emerged as a frontrunner for the papacy, impressing fellow cardinals by preaching against the dangers of secularism and the “dictatorship of relativism” — the idea that all criteria of judgment are relative to the individuals and situations involved.

The eighth German to become pope in the 2,000-year-old history of the church, and only the second non-Italian in nearly 500 years, Ratzinger chose the name Benedict in honor of St Benedict, the 5th century founder of European monasticism.

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