In 2009, after he lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, one of whom denied that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews, the Vatican was forced into damage-control mode. Benedict’s top adviser on Catholic-Jewish relations traveled to Boston to meet with Jewish leaders and rededicate a Holocaust memorial.
In a speech early in his papacy, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said Mohammed brought evil “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The context was complicated, but the out-of-context remark set off street protests throughout the Islamic world, and Benedict later apologized for the reaction.
Benedicts was an important intellectual figure throughout the papacy of John Paul II. His greatest theological concern has been with maintaining the continuity of the contemporary church with church tradition, said the Rev. Francis X. Clooney, a professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School.
Benedict, who grew up Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria amid World War II, was ordained in 1951 and became known as a liberal theologian. He was a theological adviser to Vatican II, the worldwide gathering of bishops in the early 1960s in which the church sought to open itself to the modern world.
In what some saw as a reversal of the progress made during Vatican II, Benedict approved the use of the Tridentine Mass. Some saw this as a move away from the populism of Vatican II, but Clooney said Benedict did not view it that way.
“He would not see himself as antireformer or reactionary,” Clooney said.
But his critics do, particularly with respect to his firm opposition to the ordination of women. In 2010, the Vatican issued new rules that simultaneously labeled abusing children and ordaining women as “grave crimes” against the church.
In the United States, the Vatican’s condemnation of several Catholic theologians and its crackdown on American nuns caused outcries among many mainstream Catholics. And he has repeatedly denounced same-sex relationships.
“I think it would be difficult to think of a religious figure who has a more damaging legacy for LGBT people than Benedict,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics
Benedict has also carried forward John Paul II’s legacy of moving the worldwide church hierarchy in a conservative or traditionalist direction, said Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a professor of Roman Catholic theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.
“If you look at 50 years ago — the American hierarchy at the time of Vatican II — you had a lot more progressive bishops who were more pastorally inclined, with a much stronger social orientation,” he said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.