Vatican City

Benedict, the meek theologian who had to cope with scandal

Pope stunned world by abdicating after sometimes rocky ride

Benedict, the meek theologian who had to cope with scandal

Vatican City, February 28 - Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday ended his papacy after a shock resignation that clashed with the cautious course he tried to steer in his eight years in office. Despite the pontiff's best efforts at sticking to tradition and dogma to shore up the Church's status in a changing world, his rule was rocked by sex abuse scandals and leaks on supposed Vatican infighting, while he committed several high-profile missteps, variously angering Muslims, Jews and Anglicans. Benedict, 85, announced on February 11 that because of his failing health he would step aside on February 28 so that a conclave of cardinals could choose his successor. Although his health had been a concern for some time, the abruptness of the announcement by Benedict, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stunned the world. Ever since his election on April 19, 2005, Benedict ignored appeals from reformers to continue the conservative line of predecessor John Paul II. Yet he was also willing to take advantage of new technologies, becoming the first pope to have his own Twitter account, which was followed by almost three million soon after it was launched late last year. The German-born cleric, who rose through the Vatican ranks as a hard-core conservative, stood in sharp contrast to his charismatic predecessor, the Polish pope who thrilled crowds across the world and helped bring down the Berlin Wall. The son of a Bavarian police officer, Benedict had a mandatory stint in the Hitler Youth as a boy. Throughout his papacy he belied his mild demeanour by reaffirming resistance to non-believers and a secular society. He drew flak over a 2001 directive when, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the former Inquisition - Cardinal Ratzinger said that sex-abuse investigations should be kept in-house. The Catholic Church is still reeling from the fallout of the clerical abuse scandals that came to light under Benedict's papacy after years of being hidden by some Church officials. Although the Pope eventually apologized for the abuse and met with victims, the Church remained branded for having shielded priests accused of molesting youngsters and hiding bad behaviour which in turn, prevented criminal prosecutions. More recently, Benedict has repeatedly pledged to root out abuse although victims' groups have said they were waiting to see "more concrete" actions on the abuse, which occurred in the United States, Australia, and across Europe including Germany and Italy. However, one early stand-out moment in his eventually energetic anti-abuse campaign was his decision to remove Mexican cleric and Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, a proven serial predator and father of several children who was allegedly shielded by his friendly ties to Benedict's predecessor John Paul II. Benedict's efforts to protect the Church from scandal appeared to be consistent with his well-known belief that Catholicism is the "true" faith while other religions are deficient and that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak. He also created controversy with the Islamic world when in 2006 he quoted an ancient emperor's attack on Islam as 'evil and inhuman,' igniting protests among Muslims worldwide. Benedict, not surprisingly, also stuck to conservative lines on homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem-cell research, disappointing Catholic liberals. The pontiff slapped down American nuns campaigning for a greater role in the Church. He even backed a claim that condoms might worsen Africa's AIDS crisis, before backtracking. Benedict was also embarrassed when he rehabilitated an ultra-conservative cleric who turned out to have denied the scope of the Holocaust, and he strained relations with the Anglican Church by allegedly high-handedly establishing a process for disaffected Anglicans to 'return to Rome'. Another high-profile controversy involved the Vatican Bank, whose head was sacked amid a push to get it on the UN's list of countries with flawless anti-money-laundering credentials. Most recently, Benedict's papacy was upset by the so-called Vatileaks affair, when his butler leaked confidential documents to a muckraking journalist alleging corruption in the Vatican. The pope drew a line under the affair when he pardoned the former butler who had been sentenced to 18 months in jail, Paolo Gabriele, in December. Press reports, angrily rejected as unfounded by the Vatican, said Benedict felt increasingly unable to cope with intrigue by powerful cardinals, including a gay cabal that was allegedly being blackmailed. However, supporters consistently praised Benedict for the breadth and innovation of his theological writings and, even outside the Church, his first encyclical, God Is Love, drew widespread plaudits for its touching comments on love between a man and a woman. His best-selling trilogy on the life of Jesus also gained acclaim, while traditionalists welcomed his moves to reinstate the Latin Mass in a more user-friendly form. Supporters rejected critics' claims he was trying to turn back the clock on the liberal reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, arguing that his subtle theological thinking actually galvanised the Church's cultural and intellectual energies.

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