Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic Church, and the rest of the world, when he announced yesterday that he will resign at the end of the month because he no longer has the strength to lead. It was a final surprise from a man who has been full of surprises.
As a young priest, Joseph Ratzinger was a highly regarded theologian. He was a liberal reformer in the Second Vatican Council. His academic path led to the vice presidency of a major public university in Germany in 1976.
Starting in the late 1960s, however, he began to move away from other liberal theologians. As they pushed for a more-open church, he became more inclined to defend traditional Catholic teaching.
Father Ratzinger made the shift from academia to church administration in 1977, when Pope Paul VI made him an archbishop — an unusual honor for someone with little pastoral experience. Within a year, he became a cardinal.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II chose him to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger might have ended his career as defender of the faith. But when John Paul died in 2005, he was chosen as the popular pope’s successor. At age 78, the liberal reformer of Vatican II had become the conservative leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Expected by many Catholics to be a caretaker, Pope Benedict instead encouraged the church’s growing traditionalism. He articulated its opposition to the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, and the scientific use of embryonic stem cells.
On his watch, the Vatican investigated American nuns, and discouraged some of their views as not canonical. It made overtures to ultraconservative Catholic leaders. Its changes in the Mass restored older language that was more mystical, but less inclusive.
The Pope angered Muslims with comments that linked Islam with violence. He angered Jews when he tried to rehabilitate a British bishop who denied the Holocaust. Many people of faith were discouraged when the Catholic Church restated the belief that it was the only true church.
Now, Pope Benedict has surprised again. To be pope in the modern world, he says, “both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Because he concluded that he no longer has that strength, he will not die in office, unlike each of his predecessors for more than 600 years.
It was a remarkably modern decision by a man who continues to confound those who would label him.