“I think he was actually the greatest theological mind to become pope since Gregory the Great in the 600s,” said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. “He was a terrific, powerful theologian. He took [the pontificate] as a burden that he himself did not desire.”
Cunningham said Benedict saw his task as pope as maintaining the unity of the church at a time of turmoil because of the abuse scandals, the rise of secularism in the west, and the growth of the church in Africa and Latin America.
“His instincts were traditional, and you expect that in a pope,” Cunningham said. “The whole idea of Catholicism is all the bishops of the world in union with the bishop of Rome, and he wanted to be a steadying force after the long papacy of John Paul II.
John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, recalled how, at the end of a trip to the United Kingdom in 2010, a cameraman came up to the pontiff afterward and said, “Holy Father, you made us sit up and think.”
“He wanted to lead this worldwide graduate seminar in the relationship between faith and reason in the post-modern secular world, and he did in many ways pull it off,” Allen said. “But that graduate seminar kept getting interrupted by the fires he was struggling to put out.”
The largest of these was the sexual abuse crisis, which he had dealt with firsthand as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office in charge of protecting church doctrine, where he served from 1981 until he became pope.
Benedict was the first pope to officially meet with victims of abuse. In a visit to Washington arranged by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, he met privately with victims and accepted a gift of a book of names of victims in the Archdiocese of Boston. He declined, however, the invitation to travel to Boston, center of the scandal in the United States.
“At that meeting, the Holy Father’s pastoral care for the survivors was clearly evident, as was his commitment and determination to heal the wounds of all persons impacted by the abuse crisis and to ensure that the church continues to do all that is possible to provide for the protection of children,” O’Malley said in a statement Monday.
But as another great wave of the abuse crisis swept Europe in 2010, calls for his resignation escalated. Benedict himself came under scrutiny for his oversight of an abusive priest when he was serving as bishop of Munich in the early 1980s.
Benedict spoke out forcefully against abuse, offered pointed words of contrition, and took some symbolic actions, such as sending a delegation of foreign prelates, including O’Malley, to review the church’s response to the scandal in Ireland. He also revived an investigation of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious congregation dear to the heart of John Paul II, whose founder, Marcial Maciel, was a notorious abuser, and eventually consigned Maciel to a life of prayer and penance.
But as the clergy sexual abuse scandal has continued to burn across the globe, Benedict has declined to punish bishops who failed to remove abusive priests, including, for example, Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, who in September was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a priest who had taken hundreds of pornographic pictures of young girls. He is the first American bishop convicted of failing to report abuse.
David Clohessy of the Survivors Networks of Those Abused by Priests decried Benedict’s record and said he should not get credit for merely talking about the scandal more than his predecessor. But he said the pope’s resignation may raise the possibility that he could take unprecedented actions in the days before he steps down.
“It would have a tremendous effect were he to discipline even a handful of the hundreds of complicit bishops,” he said. “He could turn over, right now, thousands of pages of church records about abusers to local law enforcement and international criminal courts. He could instruct bishops around the world to do what 30 American bishops have done, which is post the names of predators on websites.”
Internal Vatican scandals and gaffes also frustrated Benedict’s papacy. Last year, in a captivating intrigue covered breathlessly by the Italian press, the pope’s personal butler was found to have leaked private papal documents to an Italian television station, revealing suspicions of a Vatican financial corruption scandal.
Despite Benedict’s many efforts to improve interfaith relations — he visited the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and prayed alongside Muslim clerics at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — he has fumbled in that realm as well.Continued...