Pope Benedict XVI becomes the 1st pope in 600 years to resign

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI, the German pope who some feared would spend his pontificate scourging liberal Roman Catholics, focused on preaching about God's love.

But it's how he ended his papacy, as the first pope in 600 years to resign, that is guaranteed to make the history books.

"In one fell swoop, he brought the papacy into the modern world. It was a very courageous act that has probably been needed for a long time," said John Thavis, the former Vatican bureau chief of Catholic News Service and author of "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church," which will be published this week.

"A very tradition-minded pope made a very untraditional decision."

He is an introvert who followed the 26-year reign of an extrovert who had redefined the papacy. Elected at 78, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had presided over the Vatican's doctrinal office for 24 years, didn't expect a long papacy. He set out to build on the call of Pope John Paul II for a "new evangelization" that would appeal to secularized Westerners who were abandoning the faith. But his intended messages often were overshadowed by world-shaking gaffes, such as an unvetted speech on faith and reason in 2006 that triggered rioting in parts of the Muslim world.

He did far more than his predecessor to root out priests who had molested minors, but he is blamed for not forcing out bishops who had protected predators. He surprised many people, however, by looking beyond ecclesiastical matters to become an outspoken advocate of justice for the poor.

Born nearly 86 years ago in Germany, he is the son of a police officer whose anti-Nazi views caused difficulties for the family. Forced by authorities to join the Hitler Youth, the future pope dodged meetings and at age 12 entered a minor seminary. In 2006, he said he chose priesthood to confront an "anti-human culture" that had rejected God.

Ordained in 1951, he became a theology professor who advised bishops at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965. Pope Paul VI made him archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 and elevated him to cardinal. In 1981, Pope John Paul II made him head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was in charge of quashing heresy until his election on April 19, 2005.

At his inaugural Mass, he proclaimed what had become clear at Pope John Paul's funeral, when millions of young Catholics poured into Rome.

"The church is alive!" he told the cheering crowd of 350,000 people. "And the church is young!"

He set out to keep it that way.

His first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" or "God is Love," drew high praise from even the most liberal wing of the church.

"One of his greatest legacies is his first encyclical, on love. It's one of the few encyclicals I can actually quote in Sunday homilies, and people understand it," said the Rev. Louis Vallone, pastor of two parishes in Pittsburgh.

Benedict "refined Pope John Paul's and the (Second Vatican) Council's desire to put Christ and the foundational doctrines of the church back at the center of Christian life," said Michael Sean Winters, a journalist at the liberal National Catholic Reporter.

During his pontificate, the Vatican required national churches worldwide to adopt new liturgies based on a strict translation from the Latin, which were widely criticized for sounding awkward or arcane. One of the harshest critics was retired Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, a former two-time chairman of the U.S. bishops' committee on liturgy, but he insists that Benedict only inherited the project from Pope John Paul.

The single change that every practicing Catholic in America experienced during his tenure were changes to the Mass to make it a more literal translation from the Latin. The response "and also with you" became "and with your spirit." The translation project was under way before he became pope, but he made no move to stop it.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, an activist who lobbied for the revisions, said the Latinesque language is precisely what the pope wanted.

"Some people misunderstand and think he was dragging the church back into the 18th century," she said. "His point was to recover a sense of sacredness."

His most enduring contribution may be his trilogy of books on the life of Jesus, said Scott Hahn, a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

"He is a singular genius, not only in his scholarship, but in his ability to present the ideas he has researched in total clarity with real pastoral impact," he said.

"Never in the history of Christianity has a world-renowned theologian and biblical scholar of his stature occupied the See of Peter ... Yet he has never claimed these books as authoritative teaching of the church. He invites you to disagree with him. He tells you this is not infallible teaching. He is seeking the faith of Christ and the word of God."

He launched a "new evangelization" that Pope John Paul had called for, attempting to reach secularized people in historically Christian nations. He created an office for it at the Vatican. Last year, he called bishops to a synod on the topic and opened a Holy Year of Faith intended to jump start grass-roots evangelization.

"He has spent the greater part of his ministry as pope calling on the Catholic Church to refocus on its evangelizing mission," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C. "The church and all the faithful have to re-propose to this modern world Christ as the answer to the enduring questions of the human heart."

He also sought to convince secular leaders that shunting the voice of faith from public life would stunt society.

"He is constantly calling for the recognition in this very secular world that reason and faith are compatible. We are rational human beings and therefore have to use our intellect, but God's word speaks to the same intellect," Wuerl said.

In 2006, the first of his four major lectures on faith and reason, delivered at his former university in Regensburg, Germany, was derailed by his quotation of a medieval emperor who had said Islam's only innovation was to spread faith by violence. Journalists reported the quotation as if it reflected the pope's view, which he insisted it did not.

There were riots in some Muslim nations. A nun was murdered in Somalia. None of the pope's staff had vetted the speech, a warning of failures to follow.

"He thought he was in a safe, academic environment and spoke as a university professor. But the world was listening and suddenly it blew up," Thavis said. "It was a terrible moment for the pope. But he acted rather quickly and invited Muslim leaders to meet with him."

With the resulting dialogue, "I think the damage of the Regensburg speech was more than repaired," Thavis said.

The most visible repair work took place two months later in Turkey, where the pope meditated or prayed alongside a Muslim cleric in a mosque.

Regarding other faiths, he had warm words for Protestants -- highlighting their common commitment to Jesus -- but his deeds get mixed reviews. Lutheran Bishop Donald McCoid, a former bishop of Pittsburgh who represents the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Vatican, has met with him as both cardinal and pope.

"Cardinal Ratzinger was a scholar who had a very focused view defending the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict shared a warmth and kindness that was very obvious. His words were encouraging for ecumenical relationships," McCoid said.

His creation of an "ordinariate" that allowed whole parishes of conservative Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church with married priests and their own liturgy was denounced by some as sheep-stealing. Defenders responded that groups of Anglo-Catholics had spent years begging for such an arrangement, so it wasn't an effort to lure them.

Benedict's relationship with the Jewish community had volatile ups and downs. His first speech reaffirmed Pope John Paul's assurance that the Jewish covenant with God remains intact. Later, a few of his actions antagonized Jews, but he responded to their concerns and backpedaled. After authorizing wider use of the 1962 Latin Mass, he belatedly revised Good Friday prayers to remove pejorative references to Jews.

One of the worst fiascoes of his pontificate came in January 2009, when he lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist schismatics from Society of St. Pius X without knowing that one, Richard Williamson, was an outspoken anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. No one on his staff had even Googled their names for a background check.

He then wrote an unprecedented public letter to all bishops, apologizing and explaining what had happened. He thanked Jewish leaders for their willingness to "restore the atmosphere of friendship."

Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Pittsburgh, a longtime representative of Conservative Judaism in dialogues with the Vatican, never doubted Pope Benedict's desire for a good relationship.

Despite some missteps, "he has cemented the legacy of John Paul. He reaffirmed that anti-Semitism is a sin against the church," he said. "Whenever he took a position that made the Jewish community uncomfortable, he listened to our protests and then sometimes changed his position -- which is not something an infallible pope does easily."

On two defining issues of his papacy -- the sex abuse crisis and response to doctrinal dissent -- views are sharply divided.

Both liberal and conservative Catholics had expected him to devote his papacy to cracking down on dissent. Early on, he shocked both camps by inviting renegade liberal theologian Hans Kung -- an old colleague long banned from teaching Catholic theology -- to lunch.

"The biggest surprise was that he didn't turn out to be the doctrinal bully that everyone imagined him to be," Thavis said.

But liberal Catholics complain that theologians and clergy were disciplined for dissent without due process. High-profile cases included a Vatican takeover of an umbrella group for Catholic sisters and the forced retirement of an Australian bishop who had asked for discussion of women's ordination.

Early in Benedict's pontificate, the Rev. Thomas Reese was forced to resign as editor of the Jesuit magazine America for allowing articles that questioned aspects of church teaching.

Although the pope has a duty to uphold doctrine, Reese said, "The difficulty with his approach is it kills creativity in the church. The greatest challenge the church faces is how to preach the Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century, and we aren't doing that. ...We need to let some people try new ideas, even if they make mistakes, so we can discover new ways of preaching the Gospel."

Benedict's strongest critics on sex abuse acknowledge that he did far more than his predecessor to apologize to victims and remove abusive priests. But his greatest supporters admit that he failed to remove bishops who had kept perpetrators in ministry.

"I think he did more than anyone else among the cardinals in 2001 in trying to tackle the abuse crisis," said Jason Berry, the New Orleans journalist who first exposed the abuse scandal in 1985 and whose book "Render Unto Rome" documents related financial corruption. "But in the end he got swallowed by a system he could not change, and that was the culture of the hierarchy itself."

He ordered every diocese to adopt policies for responding to complaints of sexual abuse and submit them to the Vatican for approval.

"As pope, he's been very good. When he had final authority, he acted quickly to address problems," said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer who is dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh and a former chairman of the board that oversees the American bishop's response to abuse.

"But while the church is acting quickly with the actual perpetrators ... they have yet to address the question of the bishops who enabled those people."

When it came to basic sexual morality, Benedict also sent some mixed signals.

During a news conference on a 2009 flight to Africa, he ignited an international furor by saying that relying solely on condoms, without a commitment to moral behavior, would increase the spread of AIDS.

Yet he already had authorized a Vatican study of whether using condoms to prevent AIDS was morally acceptable in some circumstances. That study was never released. But in an interview for the 2010 book "Light of the World," he named a case in which he said use of a condom might be more moral than not using one.

Benedict "threw open the door for discussion," Thavis said. “There is no doctrine on such condom use and "I think he wanted to signal it to the world."

But he hardened the church's line against homosexuality, deciding that even celibate men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not be ordained.

He never questioned the ban on female priests but passed up opportunities to declare that women could never become deacons, said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate in religion at Hofstra University. Her efforts to promote women deacons include a 1988 discussion with Cardinal Ratzinger.

As pope, "he has clearly left the door open," she said.

Although he never had his predecessor's reputation as a statesman or social advocate, he spoke constantly to world events and the scourges of poverty and war.

In his 2009 encyclical "Charity in Truth," he expounded on economics, insisting that all financial decisions are moral decisions and endorsed "the possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a worldwide scale."

"It would give the Tea Party heart attacks," Reese said.

That encyclical inspired interdisciplinary conferences "about how the Christian faith can better inform the way we act as business people," Senander said.

His lowest marks are for management in Rome. Many cardinals who elected him hoped he would address abuse of power in the curia. He enacted reforms to make Vatican finances more transparent. But a series of curial fiascoes culminated in the last year's "Vatileaks" scandal, when the pope's butler was found to have given the media secret Vatican documents, including reports of internal corruption.

Still, he changed the structure of meetings of bishops and cardinals in ways that may affect the choice of his successor. At synods of bishops, he made time for more open, spontaneous talk than had been allowed previously. He had the College of Cardinals share meals in language groups.

"In the past, the only people who knew all of the cardinals were the curial cardinals. Now these guys all know each other," Vallone said, speculating that it could produce surprises in the conclave.

Hahn, the Franciscan University professor, converted to Catholicism after reading one of Cardinal Ratzinger's books. For him, the legacy is personal.

"Here is a man who is a father figure to us all, and not just in a symbolic way," he said. "But there comes a time, when a father becomes too old and infirm, that one of the most profound gestures of love might be to hand things over to the next one in line."

(Contact reporter Ann Rodgers at arodgers@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)