VATICAN CITY — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a long and illustrious career as one of the Roman Catholic Church’s pre-eminent theologians. For all his accomplishments and accolades, however, Benedict will forever be known as the first pope in 600 years to resign.
Benedict died on Saturday at the age of 95.
Here are some highlights of his life before, during and after his eight-year papacy.
During nearly a quarter-century as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger became known for disciplining errant theologians, particularly those who espoused the Liberation Theology popular in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s.
As John Paul’s right-hand man on doctrinal matters, Ratzinger wrote documents reinforcing church teaching opposing homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, and asserting that salvation can only be found in the Catholic Church.
But Ratzinger was also responsible for one of the most important in-house reforms at the Vatican: requiring all cases of clergy sex abuse to be sent to his office for processing. The 2001 change was a response to mounting evidence that bishops were moving priestly abusers around rather than sanctioning them.
Ratzinger was the favorite going into the 2005 conclave after John Paul’s death, and he was elected on the fourth round of voting after the runner-up, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the future Pope Francis — took himself out of the running.
Benedict had big shoes to fill, and he set about trying to remind Europe of its Christian roots while also seeking improved ties with China and the Orthodox Church.
But his eight-year papacy was marred by a series of communications blunders, missteps and scandals that culminated with a Vatican criminal trial of his former butler who was accused of leaking his personal correspondence to a journalist.
RELATIONS WITH JEWS AND MUSLIMS
Benedict made an outreach to Jews a hallmark of his papacy, and in one of his most significant acts, he made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ.
But he also enraged Jewish groups when he rehabilitated a Holocaust-denying bishop — a scandal that he admitted could have been avoided if someone at the Vatican had done a simple internet search of the bishop’s name.
Benedict’s relations with Muslims were more fraught. He roiled the Islamic world with a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly his command to spread the faith “by the sword.” “
A subsequent comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt led the Al Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, to suspend ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.
Benedict chose Feb. 11, 2013 — a Vatican holiday, with a routine audience with his cardinals — to make the historic announcement in Latin that he would become the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign.
While the decision took the world by surprise, Benedict had been nursing it for months. He had taken a nighttime fall during a 2012 trip to Mexico that confirmed to him that he could no longer keep up with the grueling, globe-trotting demands of the 21st century papacy.
Benedict told the cardinals that because of his age, he no longer had the required “strength of mind and body” to do the job and was freely deciding to renounce his papal ministry.
He left the Vatican on Feb. 28, 2013, flying by helicopter to the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, where he spent the first months of his retirement.
Benedict largely kept to his word that he would live a lifetime of prayer and meditation “hidden to the world” in the converted monastery in the Vatican gardens.
But he remained a point of reference for traditionalists nostalgic for his orthodox papacy. And his few public pronouncements as “pope emeritus” made headlines and fueled calls for guidelines for future retired popes to prevent confusion about who was really in charge.
The most damaging incident was his participation in a 2020 book about preserving celibacy for Catholic priests. It was published at the precise moment that Francis was weighing whether to relax celibacy in the Amazon to address a priest shortage.
The ensuing scandal resulted in Francis essentially firing Benedict’s longtime secretary.
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