Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will likely draw mixed reviews for his roles as theologian and shepherd of the world’s 1.18 billion Catholics, according to several scholars and Catholic leaders.
He is widely regarded as “the greatest professional theologian that ever occupied the Petrine office,” according to the Rev. James Bacik, retired Toledo priest now teaching at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
But Benedict’s theology was not always well received, depending on the individual’s own theological views, he added.
Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for 24 years before being elected pope in 2005, was known for a consistently conservative theology, which appealed to many for “promoting a clear Catholic identity,” Bacik said.
On the other hand, there are Catholics who were disappointed in the pope’s efforts to reign in reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.
“He was trying to make a clearer, sharper, distinctive notion of what Catholic identity is all about … and at the same time leading a movement commonly called the ‘reform of the reform,’ perceived as taking us back to before the council, reversing the council, muting the thrust of the council,” Bacik said.
“I know there are individual lay people and priests who felt their own ministries were undercut, after they had worked hard to implement Vatican II and its themes of a universal call to holiness, ecumenical dialogue, and religious liberty. ‘Reform the reform’ has been a constant effort to get back to some sort of clericalism and muting the role of lay people in the church,” he said.
Dr. Peter Feldmeier, the Murray/Bacik chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo, said that while Ratzinger/Benedict was consistently conservative in his theology, his views on theological debate change over the decades.
“At one time he felt the need for further theological opening and dialogue and debate, but he seemed to have retrenched from that position through the years,” Feldmeier said.
He cited statements by Ratzinger at a 1975 symposium of the International Theological Commission in which the then-bishop discussed “give and take between the Magisterium, or the teaching office of the church, and the theological community as a give-and-take and as a place of mutual correction and plurality. And I don’t see that same kind of theological openness and dialogue in the last 15 years or so,” he said.
Feldmeier acknowledged that the papacy requires a delicate balance.
“It’s a pretty tough job. You’re kind of holding steadfast as an institutional representative of a tradition, and figuring out how and where to allow theological plurality to happen. I don’t envy such a position at all,” he said.
Dr. Richard Gaillardetz, head of the Catholic Theological Society of America who was a professor at UT for 10 years before leaving in 2011 to teach at Boston College, said Benedict changed the image of the papacy from his globally popular Polish predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
“We have seen a shift in style. Benedict had been a little nervous of the spectacle of the papacy that had developed during Pope John Paul II’s tenure, with the adulation of the press, holding Masses in Yankee Stadium, events like that on a large scale. That made him nervous.
“His style of papal leadership has been much more subdued, much less dramatic, much less prone to spectacle,” Gaillardetz said.
He called Benedict’s decision to step down “significant on a number of levels.”
For one thing, no pope has freely resigned in more than 700 years -- since Pope Celestine V in 1294. (Pope Gregory XI’s resignation in 1415 was not entirely voluntary, he said.)
Benedict’s decision to step down puts a human face on the papacy, a view that runs counter to much of the world’s perception of the Holy See, Gaillardetz said.
“His decision to resign is very important in how it can reshape something that can be lost in Catholic popular opinion -- namely that the pope is human.”
While Catholics believe the Holy Spirit gives grace to popes to carry out their tasks, that grace “doesn’t counter basic human competencies,” Gaillardetz said.
Benedict’s resignation “reminds people of the human aspects of the papacy. The Holy Spirit assists the people in that office but it’s still exercised by a human, and when those limitations reach a significant point, the pope shouldn’t be a pope,” he said.
He said Benedict personally witnessed the physical decline of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who struggled visibly with Parkinson’s disease before his death in April, 2005.
“On the one hand, it was an inspirational witness on the dignity of the human person even in that situation,” Gaillardetz said. “I think everybody was moved by John Paul II’s witness. But it leaves a lot of questions about his competency.”
Canon Law, the church’s legal code, contains no provisions for dealing with a pope who cannot function in the job, and that apparently was a major concern for Benedict and one that influenced the 85-year-old pontiff to step down while in full control of his faculties, Gaillardetz said.
He said there have been popes throughout history with health and mental problems, but with today’s media environment it is impossible to keep a pope’s condition from the public.
“The age-old approach was to hide them away. You can’t do that today,” Gaillardetz said.
Sister Christine Schenk, head of the Cleveland-based Catholic reform group FutureChurch, called Benedict “a theologian pope -- a very good theologian.”
“I think that’s where his first love was, in his writings and in his books. I remember his 2007 apostolic exhortation [“Sacramentum Caritatis”/”The Sacrament of Charity”] after the world Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. It was just a beautiful reflection on the role of the Mass in Catholic life and the centrality of it,” Sister Christine said.
But both Schenk and Bacik said that Benedict fell short on how the Vatican handled the scandal of the late Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ who had been a sexual abuser. Maciel was ultimately denounced by the Vatican but many critics felt it was too little, too late.
Schenk gave Benedict credit for meeting personally in Washington, D.C., with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo said he believes Benedict was “very intent” in putting an end to the “horrible evil” of sex abuse by priests, and that the pope took the right steps in trying to prevent more abuse
As for the selection of the next pope, nobody interviewed for this article was ready to make a prediction.
Bacik cited a response by his mentor, the late German theologian Karl Rahner, when asked about his choice for a successor to Pope John Paul II.
“He told me he hoped that the next pope wouldn’t be quite so smart,” Bacik said. “What he meant by that was that John Paul II became the expert on every theological and moral and spiritual question. What he said on everything was taken as the last word. And he became the only major influence on younger priests.
“He certainly didn’t get his wish because the next pope, Joseph Ratzinger, was probably the greatest professional theologian of any pope we ever had.”