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Pope Benedict XVI's 30-year campaign to reassert conservative Catholicism

Some believe Pope Benedict XVI is 'the greatest scholar to rule the church since [Pope] Innocent III," in the 13th century. Child-abuse scandals have marred his tenure.

By Staff writer / August 6, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI (at far end, c.) led a meeting at the Vatican in February to canonize five new church saints, including the first one from Australia, a 19thcentury nun.

Osservatore Ro mano/Reuters


Munich and Tubingen, Germany

In the past 30 years, the Vatican has moved strongly to reassert the authority of a traditional, even orthodox Roman Catholicism – to bring the notion of a "one true church" to Europe and then the larger world. The intent was to reverse the "open" or liberalizing trend of the church represented by Vatican II.

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In the past three decades, the Vatican has cracked down on liberation theology, affirmed traditional sexual morality, and is now quietly supporting ultradevout Catholic groups such as Opus Dei and the Legions of Christ – while curbing ecumenical outreach and describing Protestant churches as not authentic.

The most constant, diligent, and serious champion of these moves is a shy but brilliant German theologian, Josef Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI.

Princeton University Renaissance scholar Anthony Grafton, not a Catholic, says Pope Benedict is "probably the greatest scholar to rule the church since [Pope] Innocent III," in the 13th century.

IN PICTURES: Pope Benedict

"There is no great issue, no direction in Catholic theology, not dominated by Ratzinger over the past three decades," says Hermann Häring, a liberal Jesuit theologian who studied with Ratzinger and has written a book about his theology.

Yet a grand effort to restore authority and make the church purer coincides with an epic impurity – abuse of children by thousands of priests and many bishops in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. To understand Pope Benedict's past, present, and perhaps future responses to the sexual abuse crisis, one must examine the arc of his religious life.

His vision for reforming the Catholic Church was often so all-absorbing that pedophilia got swept under the Vatican carpet, sources say. At the same time, a crackdown on Vatican II – the controversial three-year papal council in the mid-1960s – amplified a culture of fear, secrecy, and hierarchy. "Many rules and codes came down, but efforts to talk 'up' were thwarted," says a Jesuit official in Germany with knowledge of the issue.

"[Pope] John Paul II was the face of the church's world mission, while Ratzinger stayed in Rome, working the books, making rules as the pope's enforcer," says Karl Josef Kuschel at the University of Tubingen seminary in Germany. "Ratzinger has been appointing bishops for 30 years. It is now his church. The bishops today were chosen exactly because they agreed with him."