Just as Benedict’s resignation in 2013 shook the Roman Catholic church to its core, his death again put the institution in little-charted territory.
A pope’s death customarily sets in motion a conclave to choose a new leader of the church, but Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, was named when Benedict stepped down. It was Francis who on Wednesday announced the news of Benedict’s final decline to the world.
Now, after a life dedicated to maintaining order and tradition in the church, Benedict in death has put it into a moment of uncertainty, with questions about how and in what capacity he will be mourned, and whether a living pope will preside over the funeral of a deceased one.
Whatever ceremonies the Vatican ultimately decides on, the loss of Benedict will be particularly hard felt by church conservatives.
Even before his election as pope on April 19, 2005, his supporters saw him as their intellectual and spiritual north star, a leader who, as a powerful Vatican official, upheld church doctrine in the face of growing secularism and pressure to change to get more people into the pews.
Benedict’s critics are more likely to remember him as a crusher of dissent who did far too little to address sexual abuse in the church, stumbled in some of his public declarations, and lacked the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.
Francis fired or demoted many of Benedict’s appointees, redirected the church’s priorities, and adjusted its emphasis from setting and keeping boundaries to pastoral inclusivity.
Still, in some regards, Francis built on Benedict’s legacy, especially in addressing the child sexual abuse crisis. Benedict was the first pope to meet with victims, and he apologized for the abuse that was allowed to fester under John Paul II. He excoriated the “filth” in the church and excommunicated some offending priests.
But abuse survivors and their advocates accused Benedict of having failed to go far enough in punishing several priests as a bishop in Germany, and in his handling of accusations against some priests as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. He was also criticized as doing little to hold the hierarchy accountable for shielding — and so facilitating — child sexual abuse.
Benedict, born Joseph Alois Ratzinger, was ordained a priest in 1951, and named archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, the same year that he became a cardinal. Four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome, where he became the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office responsible for defending church orthodoxy, one of the Vatican’s most important positions.
He led the office for nearly 25 years.
After John Paul II died in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen as his successor. He took the name of a sixth-century monk, Benedict of Nurcia, who had founded monasteries and the Benedictine order, helping spread Christianity in Europe. The new pope, as Benedict XVI, would seek to re-evangelize a Europe that was struggling to maintain its faith.
Ultimately, Pope Benedict bowed out during a period of scandals and immense pressures. He cited his declining health, both “of mind and body.” He had said that he resigned freely, and “for the good of the church.”
That resignation — the first by a pontiff since 1415 — is likely to be remembered as his most defining act.
He lived in retirement in a monastery on the Vatican grounds, mostly stepping back from public life and dedicating himself to prayer and meditation. Francis visited him and called him “a wise grandfather in the home,” even as his supporters sought — and failed — to make him an alternative power center.