Pope Benedict stunned the world this morning when he announced his own retirement. I did not see this coming. I have not been a huge fan of Benedict as I’ve watched him forcibly quash the influence of liberation theology and move the Roman Catholic church toward toward the conservative in nearly all things. I hope this signals a change in direction, but I doubt it. I will certainly be praying for the college of Cardinals, hoping that there might be a man more like John Paul II out there, ready to assume the seat at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times:
ROME — Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic world on Monday by saying that he would resign on Feb. 28 after less than eight years in office, the first pope to do so in six centuries…
A profoundly conservative figure whose papacy was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, Benedict, 85, was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of John Paul II…
While there had been questions about Benedict’s health, the timing of his announcement sent shock waves around the world, even though he had in the past endorsed the notion that an incapacitated pope could resign…
The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into intense speculation about who will succeed him and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious… “In today’s world,” the pope said, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
…Silver-haired, stooped and cerebral, Benedict’s influence could well extend to the choice of a successor since he has molded the College of Cardinals — the papal electoral body — by his appointment of kindred spirits during his papacy.
Vatican lore has it that cardinals tipped as front-runners in advance of the vote rarely triumph, and Vatican-watchers say there is no clear favorite among several potential contenders including Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s office for bishops.
There have also been calls for a pope to be chosen from the developing world, home to half of the world’s Catholics.
…When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient”; that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem cell research.
… He was ordained in 1951, at age 24, and began his career as a liberal academic and theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, supporting many efforts to make the church more open. But he moved theologically and politically to the right. Pope Paul VI named him bishop of Munich in 1977 and appointed him a cardinal within three months. Taking the chief doctrinal job at the Vatican in 1981, he moved with vigor to quash liberation theology in Latin America, cracked down on liberal theologians and in 2000 wrote the contentious Vatican document “Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others.
…Benedict’s tenure was caught up in growing sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church that crept ever closer to the Vatican itself. In 2010, as outrage built over clerical abuses, some secular and liberal Catholic voices called for his resignation, their demands fueled by reports that laid part of the blame at his doorstep, citing his response both as a bishop long ago in Germany and as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles such cases.
In one disclosure, news emerged that in 1985, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed a letter putting off efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest. He cited the priest’s relative youth but also the good of the church.
…The church he inherited was in crisis, the sexual abuse scandal being its most vivid manifestation. It was an institution run by a largely European hierarchy overseeing a faithful largely residing in the developing world. And it was increasingly being torn between its ancient, insular ways and the modern world.
For the church’s liberal elements, rather than being the answer to that crisis, Benedict’s election represented the problem: an out-of-step conservative European academic. Many wondered if he would be a mere caretaker, filling the post after the long papacy of the beloved John Paul until a younger, more dynamic heir could be elevated.
In 2006, less than two years into his papacy, Benedict stirred ire across the Muslim world, referring in a long, scholarly address to a conversation on the truths of Christianity and Islam that took place between a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar.
“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” the pope said. “He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ ”
While making clear that he was quoting someone else, Benedict did not say whether he agreed. He also briefly discussed the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as “holy war,” and said that violence in the name of religion was contrary to God’s nature and to reason.
Benedict also faced questioning by some critics about what he and others have said was his unwilling conscription into the Hitler Youth and the Germany Army during the Nazi era. He has also faced accusations that he displayed reticence and insensitivity about the Holocaust.
In a book-length interview in 1997, Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, said, “’As a seminarian, I was registered in the Hitler Youth.’” He added, ’”As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back.’”
Reared in a Catholic family in Bavaria, where the church was seen in many ways as a bulwark against Nazism, Benedict was later drafted into the German Army and served in an antiaircraft unit.
As pope he visited Auschwitz in 2006 as a gesture of atonement, calling himself a “son of the German people.” A year earlier, on one of his first trips as pope, he visited the Cologne synagogue and marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, “in which millions of Jews — men, women and children — were put to death in the gas chambers and ovens.”