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A man of contradictions, Benedict leaves us two very different legacies

The pope emeritus took the first strong steps to stop clery sex abuse, but ultimately prioiritized the institution of the church.
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI walks up the processional ramp to the altar to conduct Mass on April 20, 2008, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Mike Segar / Pool via AP

A man of contradictions. A pope of colliding centuries. It’s as if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is being laid to rest Thursday in Vatican City, has two legacies instead of one. 

The theologian Joseph Ratzinger was a significant architect of the theology that informed the doctrines of the Second Vatican Council, a reform effort in the 1960s that brought fresh air to the church by encouraging outreach to other religions, the use of local languages instead of Latin at Mass, support for religious freedom and much more.

Despite this promise and the potential for transparency, Benedict continued the church’s centuries-old preference for handling abuse cases privately.

Ratzinger was deemed one of the influential progressives at the council, but as a cardinal starting in 1977 and then as pope from 2005 to 2013, he instead sought to filter the fresh air from the windows opened by the council. Yet that fresh air — including the recognition that the church is the People of God rather than the hierarchical structure alone — is what opened the path for ordinary lay Catholics to speak up and participate fully in our faith in this century.

As pope, Ratzinger declared in 2008 that Christians should promote a culture giving women, “in law and in everyday life, the dignity that is theirs by right.” But he seemingly ignored that ideal by investigating U.S. nuns for doctrinal purity (the investigations eventually fizzled out), warned women against feminism because it might blur their maternal vocation and repeatedly said women could never be priests. That collision of the eras ironically emerged from an institution that elevates motherhood to sanctity while equally insisting that only celibate men (presumably not aspiring to fatherhood) can be worthy of representing Christ as priests.

The contradictions and the clash of ancient (or at least medieval) and modern views did not stop there. Benedict, for example, was the first pope to acknowledge the crimes of clergy sexual abuse and attempt to make amends institutionally. He removed, in the estimation of some, hundreds of priests who had abused children. He also met face to face with some of the abused in the U.S. during his 2008 visit — a visit after which he spoke of the need for a more transparent Catholic Church, which (coincidentally, I assume) echoed the call for transparency and accountability that my own organization, Voice of the Faithful, published in an ad greeting him on that visit. 

Voice of the Faithful organized in 2002 in response to the astounding revelations of child sex abuse by clergy in the Boston diocese. We quickly grew to a worldwide presence as the scope of the clergy abuse problem became apparent. Standing on the White House lawn when Benedict visited in 2008 and hearing his words over the course of the entire U.S. visit gave us hope that at last someone in the Vatican “got it,” that abuse now would be addressed forthrightly across the global Catholic Church. 

But despite this promise and the potential for transparency, Benedict continued the church’s centuries-old preference for handling abuse cases privately, stopping far short of the reforms that could effectively protect against future abuse — reforms such as directing bishops to publish lists of abusers, requiring every diocese to establish and implement clear reporting channels for those who had been abused and requiring “safe environment” committees in every diocese and parish. He failed to hold bishops accountable publicly (and perhaps not at all) for covering up these crimes. Worse, it appears that as a diocesan bishop, he, too, failed to protect children from further abuse, a failing for which he apologized shortly before his death

Sadly, it did not surprise me that as bishop he may have covered up some of the same crimes other bishops failed to address. The propensity to try to protect the institution at all costs, even when that cost is an abused child, has too often governed the actions of bishops. Even with newly declared policies that direct bishops to report all abuse, there are huge lapses

During his papacy, Benedict also sought to bring extremist, schism-minded traditionalists closer to the center by relaxing certain restrictions: allowing greater freedom to say Mass in Latin, for example, and striving to bring the Lefevrist sect back to communion with the church. This openness allowed further rifts that devolve even today into either/or attacks by Catholics upon other Catholics.

The contradictions and collisions are perhaps intrinsically Catholic. We often are reminded that, as Catholics, our perspective should not be “either/or” but rather “both/and.” Both faith and reason. Both doctrinal teachings and individual conscience. Both communal worship and private prayer. So perhaps the contradictions in Benedict’s life are simply his version of both/and in action.

As a woman who grew up mostly in the pre-Vatican II church but has spent her adult life learning from and living her faith after Vatican II, I can thank Benedict XVI for the theology he contributed to those reforms. I can appreciate his spiritual writings and recognize that for many he was a valued and honored teacher.

The contradictions and collisions are perhaps intrinsically Catholic. We often are reminded that, as Catholics, our perspective should not be “either/or” but rather “both/and.”

I can also decry his failures to fully address the sex abuse of children by clergy, wonder why no one gave him a good recent book about gender and ask how a scholar such as him could ignore the case for female deacons. Numerous books and articles by biblical scholars and researchers find evidence that female deacons were ordained well into the 12th century. Their history is one of being gradually removed from performing diaconal duties, not one of never having been ordained. Surely a scholar such as Benedict knew of these works.

Mostly, however, I will appreciate the path we now can follow because Benedict served the church at Vatican II, helping open our minds and hearts to a path for the whole People of God: laity, religious and clergy. My voice now rises with those of other laypeople to participate, to lead, to admonish, to seek advice, to follow Christ on my own unique path — which is as sacred (and as mundane) as the paths of all other People of God.

Perhaps, using the contradictions and collisions of Benedict’s work, the Spirit has set in motion the 21st century path of the Catholic Church, which Pope Francis is calling us to embrace: synodality. The antithesis of the encrusted hierarchical institution Benedict sought to protect, a synodal church recaptures the way of being a church modeled for us by Jesus and by the apostles. The both/and, the contradictions and collisions, of Benedict’s papacy opened pathways he perhaps did not see, but they are as much a part of his legacy as those he tried intentionally to lay down.

Maybe that is a last contradiction, that a figure seen as traditionalist and conservative more than 50 years ago provided the stones for the current path toward synodality and a Catholic Church for the 21st century.