Benedict XVI the man at odds with the modern world

Benedict XVI: the man at odds with the modern world

Benedict XVI, who died on December 31, 2022 at the age of 95, leaves behind a complex legacy as pope and theologian. To many observers, Benedict was known for criticizing what he saw as the modern world’s rejection of God and the timeless truths of Christianity. But as a student of the diversity of world Catholicism, I believe it is best to avoid simplistic depictions of the Benedict’s theology, which I believe will influence the Catholic Church for generations to come.

While the brilliance of this intellectual legacy will no doubt live on, it also has to face the shadow of the many controversies that marked Benedict’s time as Pope and later as Pope Emeritus.

priests and teachers

Benedikt was born Josef Alois Ratzinger on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn. During World War II he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, a wing of the NSDAP. He was later recruited into an anti-aircraft unit and then into the infantry of Nazi Germany.


While teaching at the University of Bonn, Ratzinger was elected theological advisor to the Cologne Cardinal Joseph Frings, a strong critic of National Socialism, for the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965. The Second Vatican Council attempted to renew the Catholic Church by compromising more constructively with the modern world. There Ratzinger argued that Catholic theology needed to develop a “new language” to speak to a changing world.

As Pope, Benedict later rejected more progressive interpretations of the Council as a revolutionary event aimed at reshaping the Catholic Church. Although he introduced significant changes to Catholic life, notably by allowing Mass to be held in the vernacular languages, Benedict opposed every proposal put forward by the Second Vatican Council called for a fundamental break with centuries-old Catholic teaching and tradition. And during his pontificate, he permitted a wider celebration of the ancient Latin Mass, a decision his successor, Pope Francis, would reverse.

In 1966 Ratzinger accepted an important teaching position at the University of Tübingen. At the end of the 1960s, Tübingen was the scene of student protests, some of which demanded further democratization of the Catholic Church. When protesting students were disturbing the Tübingen faculty monastery, Ratzinger is said to have walked away instead of speaking to the students like other professors. Ratzinger was angered by what he saw as dictatorial and Marxist tendencies among the student protesters. He then moved to the University of Regensberg.

In 1977 he was appointed by Pope Paul VI. appointed bishop of Munich and Freising. Shortly thereafter, he was made a cardinal, a member of the administrative body that elects the pope.

Cardinal and Pope

A seasoned theologian, Ratzinger was elected by Pope John Paul II to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees and enforces Catholic doctrine. In this position, Cardinal Ratzinger sanctioned several theologians. The most notable case was that of American priest and theologian Charles Curran, who was fired from the Catholic University of America for challenging official Catholic teaching on sexuality.

Ratzinger was also elected head of the Writing Commission of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, published in 1992, remains an important basis for understanding Catholic thought and practice.

After the death of John Paul II in 2005, Ratzinger was elected Pope. He chose the name “Benedict” in honor of Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, a religious movement that preserved Western culture after the fall of Rome. The name “Benedict” also recognized Benedict XV, a much-forgotten pope who attempted to negotiate a peace accord to end World War I.

controversies in the pontificate

Pope Benedict XVI had to face the growing scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church after his election. As a cardinal, he had publicly downplayed the scale and severity of the crisis. Under his leadership, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided not to remove Lawrence C. Murphy from the priesthood, despite allegations that Murphy had molested more than 200 children at a Catholic school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

As Pope, however, Benedict took some tough measures that his predecessor John Paul II had not taken. The most significant was the punishment of Marcial Maciel Degollado, an incestuous bigamist, serial pedophile and founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a large Catholic religious order, and the withdrawal of his permission to preach or hold masses in public. He also criticized the Irish bishops for mishandling the sex abuse crisis.

For many survivors of clergy sex abuse, these measures were not enough. Benedict did not open the Vatican archives to public scrutiny, nor did he discipline cardinals and bishops who relocated pedophile priests.

Beyond the sex abuse crisis, Benedict’s pontificate had other controversies that drew global attention. At a conference in Regensberg in 2006 Benedict seemed to criticize the Islamic image of God and the legacy of the Prophet Mohammed. This sparked protests in the Middle East and South Asia. However, his official visits to Beirut and Istanbul repaired some of the damage.

Benedict XVI also appealed to dissenting Catholic groups. In 2009 he lifted the excommunication of bishops from the Order of Saint Pius X, a dissident Catholic sect opposed to the reforms of Vatican II. Afterwards, Benedict learned that a Bishop of Saint Pius X, Richard Williamson, had made anti-Semitic comments and was a Holocaust denier.

Benedict said his ignorance of Williamson’s views was an “unforeseen mishap” as he was unfamiliar with the internet as a “source of information”.

theological writings

As Pope, Benedict continued his theological writings and wrote three major encyclicals, or papal letters. The first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, or “God is Love,” defends “charity” as love given freely. Charity is not just a good deed, but an act that transforms both the giver and the recipient.

The second encyclical Spe Salvi or “Saved in Hope” reflects the hope that God gives to people in a world that often seems hopeless. In the third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth, Benedict argues that charity is fundamentally related to justice. And in matters of progress and human fulfilment, we cannot trust either the nation state or the market economy, for “without God man does not know where to go, he does not even understand who he is”.

These papal letters seek to defend Christianity in a world that Benedict believed was increasingly hostile to religious belief. What was surprising about Benedict’s thinking—even to his theological critics—was the elegance with which he presented his arguments for Christ and the transformative power of Christianity as sources of truth, beauty, and love.

But long before he became pope, Benedict recognized that Christianity would continue to lose cultural ground and be reduced to a shrinking following. In 1969 Ratzinger predicted that the Church would have to “start all over again,” meaning that one day Christianity would have to be built from the ground up.

Benedict XVI’s legacy

When Benedict resigned as Pope in 2013, he took the world by storm. Benedict said he could no longer bear the burdens of the papacy and vowed to live in seclusion. His official title became “Pope Emeritus”. But controversy also followed his resignation. For example, he gave interviews and named writings that appeared to criticize the reforms of his successor, Pope Francis.

More recently, a January 2022 report on sexual abuse in the diocese of Munich criticized Ratzinger’s “inaction” on four cases of sexual abuse during his tenure as archbishop from 1977 to 1982. In response to the report, the pope emeritus apologized, but did but not admit every administrative failure.

The writings of Benedict XVI. will be relevant in decades but his pontificate will inevitably be fraught with controversy. About his personal legacywill probably be driven by the question that occupied Benedict most: How can the Catholic Church continue to make a difference in the modern world?

For: Matthew Schmalz

Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross

This article was originally published in English on The Conversation

The conversation