James HitchcockBy James Hitchcock

As pope, it has fallen to Benedict XVI to preside over the Church at a time of great scandal -- reports of old sexual abuses perpetrated by priests continually coming to light, with no apparent end in sight. Besides the sufferings inflicted on the victims, the Church has suffered severe loss of moral credibility.

But at the same the Church's fundamental health should not be underestimated. The sexual scandals themselves are in large part a legacy of an earlier, disordered time.

When John Paul II became pope in 1978, the Catholic Church was in considerable disarray in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5. It was characteristic of his papacy to condemn when he thought necessary, sometimes imposing discipline, but always for the sake of what he considered a higher liberating truth.

Perhaps his most important achievement was his theology of human sexuality -- the "Theology of the Body" -- where he directly confronted those aspects of Catholic doctrine that were the most highly contested, exalting the love of husband and wife that culminates in the act of procreation, which is a sharing in God's own creative act.

John Paul had considerable success in overcoming the post-conciliar confusion, and no one contributed more to that process than Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with protecting the integrity of doctrine. Ratzinger's election as pope in 2005 was an unambiguous decision by the cardinals to continue on the path of renewal laid out by John Paul -- the greatest philosopher ever to serve as pope followed by the greatest theologian ever to do so.

Throughout John Paul's pontificate, Ratzinger addressed the fundamental issues raised by the Council, insisting on the essential continuity between the "pre-conciliar" and "post-conciliar" Church, suggesting, somewhat daringly, that the Council had been excessively optimistic about the state of the world.

While acknowledging the achievements of the historical-critical method, Ratzinger insisted that scripture discloses its full meaning only within the community of the Church and advocated a recovery of the exegesis of the early Fathers.

Although originally supportive, he became one of the most trenchant critics of liturgical change, arguing that the process ignored the way in which the ritual life of the Church is deeply rooted in the mystical community and therefore cannot be changed by sudden fiat. Perhaps most significant was his expressed belief that the priest at Mass should face ad orientem -- at head of the congregation facing toward God -- rather than facing the people.

With regard to Liberation Theology, Ratzinger and John Paul defined the Christian meaning of liberation as including the reform of social structures, but above all as liberation from the bondage of sin, which is rooted in human nature and is the ultimate cause of social injustice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was developed under Ratzinger's supervision, became a major instrument for clarifying doctrinal confusion and making authentic Catholic teaching readily accessible.