Pope Benedict, conservative whose resignation shattered tradition, dies at 95

FILE – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to attend the beatification ceremony of Pope Paul VI, on Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

Former Pope Benedict XVI, who roughly a decade ago became the first pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to resign in nearly 600 years, died Saturday at his home in Vatican City. He was 95.

The Holy See said Benedict’s health had worsened because of old age. He was being closely monitored by doctors at his home, a former monastery in Vatican City.

Benedict leaves behind a complicated legacy. His papacy was hounded by child abuse scandals in the church, and he faced accusations that he failed to address those allegations while he was an archbishop.

Yet he was credited for making way for his successor, the more liberal-minded Pope Francis, to transition the Catholic Church into a more progressive era.

Benedict was also regarded as a great scholar of the Catholic faith, known for his powerful encyclicals, or papal writings, addressing spiritual and social issues.

He oversaw a commission that created the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” a text approved in 1992 containing the fundamental beliefs of the church. And his first book as pope, “Jesus of Nazareth,” was hailed as a compelling biography of Jesus Christ.

Throughout his theological life, Benedict was known as a more conservative member of the faith. He worked to uphold traditions and preserve the Vatican’s image.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper last year, Benedict said he often thought about the day he resigned from the papacy.

“It was a difficult decision. But I took it in full awareness, and I think I did well. Some of my somewhat fanatical friends are still angry, they didn’t want to accept my choice,” he said. “They don’t want to believe in a conscious choice. But my conscience is clear.”

Pope Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Germany, a small village in the southeastern state of Bavaria.

He spent much of his youth in the town of Traunstein near the border with Austria, where he attended a seminary school. At age 14, he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, and at 16, when Adolf Hitler rose to power, he was drafted into the Nazi army and served in an anti-aircraft auxiliary unit.

Benedict deserted the military in 1945, along with his brother, and was taken prisoner by U.S. forces for several months. When the war ended, he was just 18 years old.

His time in the Nazi army caused some concerns as he rose in the Catholic Church, but while working under Pope John Paul II in the ’90s, Benedict helped clear up Catholic-Jewish divisions, including by recognizing the state of Israel.

After the war, Benedict studied philosophy and theology at the University of Munich, eventually earning a doctorate. He was ordained as a priest in 1951 and taught theology for years at several universities while also publishing numerous works in advanced theology.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Benedict as archbishop of Munich and Freising.

In that position, Benedict failed to take action against clerics in four reported abuse cases, an independent commission found earlier this year. 

After the commission’s report, Benedict admitted he was in a 1980 meeting to discuss the transfer of Father Peter Hullermann, who is accused of abusing 23 boys during his priesthood. 

Hullermann was not suspended from duties with the church until 2010.

Benedict also said it was a “mistake” that he failed to acknowledge he was in the meeting in a previous statement, attributing it to an editing error.

In 1981, Benedict became the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a watchdog agency for the Vatican charged with investigating serious crimes. He assumed the position at a time when allegations of sexual abuse against the Catholic Church were beginning to surface, especially in the U.S.

Pope John Paul II appointed Benedict as dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002. After John Paul’s death in 2005, Benedict was elected to become the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

That came a year after a report commissioned by the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops found 10,000 allegations of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, with the dioceses later confirming accusations against more than 4,000 priests, or 4 percent of the clergy at the time, setting off a years-long scandal in the U.S.

During his papacy, Benedict struggled to contain the fallout from the scandal, including internal divisions in the Vatican cited as one of the largest institutional crises for the Holy See.

Benedict, who said he was “deeply ashamed” by the sexual abuse accusations and that credibly accused priests had no place in the church, was repeatedly accused of covering up sex abuse crimes.

When he resigned in 2013, Pope Benedict cited bad health and old age.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said in an announcement at the time.

Years later, in a 2019 essay, Benedict attributed the lengthy history of child abuse in the clergy to degrading religious morality in the church and a sexual culture that arose in the 1960s, saying more faithful and traditional books like his were “hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.”

He also noted that priests had strong legal protections before 2001, when he helped rewrite policies to make it easier to hold them accountable.

The essay was criticized by more liberal-minded Catholics and embraced by more conservative followers. Critics said it was thin and ignored the fact of documented accusations against priests stretching back centuries.

At his last general audience in 2013, Benedict said he would not retreat to privacy and would  devote the rest of his life to the Catholic faith.

“I have taken this step with full awareness of its gravity and even its novelty, but with profound interior serenity,” he said. “Loving the church means also having the courage to make difficult, painful decisions, always looking to the good of the church and not of oneself.”

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