VATICAN CITY – How will Bendict XVI be remembered by history: A transitional scholar-pope or a pope who failed to steer the largest Christian denomination through a period of scandal?
On one hand, Benedict was the teacher pope, a theology professor who turned his Wednesday general audiences into master classes about Catholicism and the history, saints and sinners that contributed to it.
In his teachings, he sought to boil Christianity down to its essential core. He didn’t produce volumes of encyclicals as did his predecessor; he wrote just three, one each on charity, hope and love. (He penned a fourth, on faith, but retired before finishing it.)
Considered by many to be the greatest living theologian, he authored more than 65 books, dating back to the classic “Introduction to Christianity” in 1968 to the final installment of his triptych on “Jesus of Nazareth” in 2012 – considered by some to be his most important contribution to the church. In between he produced the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” – essentially a how-to guide to being a Catholic.
Benedict spent the bulk of his early career in the classroom, as a student and then professor of dogma and fundamental theology at German universities in Bonn, Muenster, Tuebingen and Regensburg.
“His classrooms were crowded,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a theology student of Ratzinger’s from 1972-74 at the University of Regensburg and now the English-language publisher of his books.
“I don’t recall him having notes,” Fessio said. “He would stand at the front of the class, and he wasn’t looking at you, not with eye contact, but he was looking over you, almost meditating.”
It’s a style that he’s kept for 40 years.
“If you hear him give a sermon, he’s speaking not from notes, but you can write it down and print it,” Fessio said. “Every comma is there, every pause.”
Benedict never wanted to be pope, and he didn’t take easily to the rigors of the job. Elected April 19, 2005, after one of the shortest conclaves in history, then 78-year-old Benedict was the oldest pope chosen in 275 years and the first German in almost a millennium.
At first, he was stiff.
In the early days Benedict used to greet crowds with an awkward victory gesture “as if he were an athlete,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano
“At some point, someone told him that wasn’t a very papal gesture,” Vian said.
Benedict changed course, opting for an open-armed embrace or an twinkling of his fingers on an outstretched hand as a way of connecting with the crowd.
“No one is born a pope,” Vian said. “You have to learn to be a pope.”
Slowly Benedict learned.
Crowds accustomed to a quarter-century of superstar John Paul II, grew to embrace the soft-spoken, scholarly Benedict, who had an uncanny knack for being able to absorb different points of view and pull them together in a coherent whole.
He traveled, though less extensively than John Paul, and presided over Masses that were heavy on Latin, Gregorian chant and the silk brocaded vestments of his pre-Vatican II predecessors.
Benedict seemed genuinely surprised by the warm reception he received – as well as the harsh criticism when things went wrong, as they did when he lifted the excommunication of a bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust-denier. For a theologian who for decades had worked toward reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, the outrage was fierce and painful.
Benedict also was burdened by what he called the “filth” of the church: the sins and crimes of its priests.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict saw first-hand the scope of sex abuse as early as the 1980s, when he unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Vatican legal department to let him quickly remove abusive priests.
But it was 2001 before he finally stepped in, ordering all abuse cases sent to his office for review.
“We used to discuss the cases on Fridays; he used to call it the Friday penance,” said Scicluna, who was Ratzinger’s sex crimes prosecutor from 2002-2012.
Still, to this day, Benedict hasn’t sanctioned a single bishop for covering up abuse.
“Unfortunately, Pope Benedict’s legacy in the abuse crisis is one of mistaken emphases, missed opportunities and gestures at the margin, rather than changes at the center,” said Terrence McKiernan of bishopaccountability.org, an online resource of abuse documentation.
Benedict also gets poor grades from liberal Catholics, who felt abandoned by a pope who seemed to roll back the clock on the modernizing reforms of Vatican II and launched a crackdown on U.S. nuns who were deemed to have strayed too far from his doctrinal orthodoxy.
Some priests now are living in open rebellion with church teaching, calling for a rethinking of issues ranging from homosexuality to women’s ordination to priestly celibacy.
“As Roman Catholics worldwide prepare for the conclave, we are reminded that the current system remains an ‘old boys club’ and does not allow for women’s voices to participate in the decision of the next leader of our church,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, head of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a group that ordains women in defiance of church teaching.
The conference plans to raise pink smoke during the conclave “as a prayerful reminder of the voices of the church that go unheard.”
But Benedict won’t be around at the Vatican to see it. His work is done. “Mission accomplished,” Vian said.
As Benedict told 150,000 people in his final speech as pope: “To love the church is to have the courage to make difficult, painful choices, always keeping in mind the good of the church, not oneself.”