Resignation of ‘God’s Rottweiler’ shocked the world – and he continued to be controversial

World

The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict marks an unfamiliar junction for modern Catholics.

He is the first pope since the Middle Ages to die after retiring from office.

His death will trigger public mourning but not the election of a successor which many are used to.

Former pontiff dies after Pope Francis revealed he was ‘very sick’ – follow latest updates

Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, appears on a balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
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Pope Benedict on a balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Pope Francis, elected in 2013 after Benedict stepped down, will continue in his role as the head of the Catholic Church.

As the world remembers the 265th Pope, it will also reflect on his time as one of the most powerful religious leaders on earth.

Members of the clergy familiar with Benedict say he was known as the intellectual pope.

“Benedict was a shy person. He loved books. He loved his desk, writing, reflecting. Bringing in beautiful German, and then also in other languages, his thought. But a lonely person. He was even telling people: ‘My true friends are the books’,” said Professor Felix Koerner SJ, theologian at Humboldt University in Berlin.

In 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, the first German to be elected Pope in a thousand years.

Read more:
Pope Benedict’s rise to the top and the controversies surrounding his reign

Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI (R) walk through the gardens at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland September 16, 2010.
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Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 2010

An uncompromising theological conservative, cardinals chose him as a “safe pair of hands” and while a hero to many traditionalists, his time in office was marked by several scandals.

The son of a policeman, born in 1927, as a child he lived through Nazi rule.

As a teenager he served in the Hitler Youth during the Second World War when membership was compulsory.

While his family opposed Adolf Hitler’s regime and he didn’t join the Nazi party, many in the Jewish community were concerned when he was first elected.

On a trip to Auschwitz death camp, he confronted Germany’s dark past.

“This is an historic trip as important as that of his predecessor Pope John Paul II,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the time. “The fact that a German pope raised in Nazi Germany and who once wore the uniform of the Hitler Youth kneels in prayer at the site of the world’s greatest atrocity and condemns hatred is a repudiation of antisemitism.”

Pope Benedict XVI is pictured with fellow priests, his brother Georg Ratzinger and friend Rupert Berger, on the day that they were ordained into the priesthood in Munich June 29, 1951 file photo.
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Pope Benedict with fellow priests, his brother Georg Ratzinger and friend Rupert Berger, on the day they were ordained in June 1951

This wasn’t the only flash point.

In 2006, Benedict sparked outrage in the Muslim world when during a speech in Germany he quoted a 14th Century emperor saying that Islam brought evil to the world spread by the sword.

Protest followed as fury spread.

A nun was shot in Somalia.

He later had to issue an apology, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the reactions his address had prompted.

In 2009, the rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier outraged Jews, as well as many Catholics.

Later that year, he sparked further anger when he told reporters on his first trip to Africa that condoms exacerbated the AIDS and HIV problem.

Despite these missteps, among many conservative Catholics, Benedict was popular.

 1979 file photo: Pope John Paul II, left, poses with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected Pope Benedict 
PIC:AP
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Pope John Paul II (L) , with Pope Benedict – who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – in 1979

As a cardinal charged with enforcing doctrinal purity, Benedict was given the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” for his uncompromising conservative views.

As Pope, he was respected for his deep faith and his work as a theologian, producing 60 books between 1963 and 2013.

“His strength was clearly how to express the Christian faith in a way understandable to modern human beings. That’s his message. That’s what he leaves us,” said Professor Koerner.

Child abuse scandals marred his time as Pope and continued to haunt him into retirement.

While his supporters pointed out that he removed hundreds of priests from the priesthood for abuse, others felt he could have done more.

“The number one challenge for Pope Benedict was the abuse crisis, which was just gaining in speed and spreading all over the world during his pontificate. And he did take several steps to begin to respond to that. But his critics say that he didn’t do enough in the time that he was the Pope,” said Luke Coppen, senior correspondent at the Catholic website The Pillar.

Pope Benedict XVI during the Sunday Easter mass 'Urbi et Orbi' (to the city and the world) benediction in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican
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The Sunday Easter mass benediction in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2012

In 2022, Benedict admitted errors had been made and asked for forgiveness after an independent report in Germany alleged he had failed to act in four cases of sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

His lawyers argued he was not directly to blame.

In 2012, scandal darkened Pope Benedict’s door again, when his butler was found to be the source leaking documents alleging corruption and feuding in the Vatican.

“Pope Benedict’s pontificate was undoubtedly marked by great corruption and dysfunction within the Vatican itself. And he struggled throughout his pontificate to deal with that.

“And many people think that, in fact, his pontificate went off course, because of all the issues in the Vatican that prevented him from focussing on his key strengths of preaching and teaching,” said Mr Coppen.

No doubt exhausted by the “Vatileaks” scandal and ongoing ill health, the following year, Pope Benedict sparked controversy again, this time becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attend a meeting on the day of a consistory ceremony to elevate Roman Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal, at the Vatican, August 27, 2022
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Pope Francis and Pope Benedict in August 2022

In his final address to the faithful he acknowledged the weight of the office and the Church’s problems.

Then, in an extraordinary chapter for the Catholic church he said goodbye to cardinals before retiring to a monastery in Vatican City.

“That was a remarkable step he made. And there hasn’t been a pope since the Middle Ages who stepped down. So he, as a fairly conservative person, was also opening a door to a world of today where people need not stay in office until they die, but where they can realise themselves ‘I’m too weak now to lead, so I need to step down,’ even as a Pope,” explained Professor Koerner.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gestures at the Munich Airport before his departure to Rome
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Pope Benedict will be remembered ‘as a Pope of reflection and thinking’

After retirement, Benedict chose to keep wearing white, give interviews and not to revert to his old name; decisions critics claimed threatened unity in the church.

But the two Popes’ personal relationship was strong, with Francis referring to his predecessor as a grandfather figure and asking people to pray for his friend as his health deteriorated.

“He is very sick,” Pope Francis told worshippers in December 2022, asking the Lord to comfort him to the very end.

Today, Benedict XVI is remembered “as a Pope of reflection and thinking” as millions of Catholics around the world pray for the man who led their church for almost a decade.

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