Pope Benedict's legacy: More influential than Pope John Paul II?

Pope Benedict's legacy may be a willingness to let liberal Catholics leave in favor of a more orthodox church in the US and Europe.

Courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano/AP
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, at the Vatican, Monday. Pope Benedict announced Monday that he would resign at the end of the month - the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.

Pope Benedict resigns later this month after arguably being the single most influential figure inside the Roman Catholic Church for three decades, dating to the early 1980s.

A shy but brilliant scholar whose consistent vision has been to reinstitute the grand authority held by the Vatican in the Middle Ages, Benedict has, often single-handedly, redirected his church away from the liberal experiments and sometimes amateurish enthusiasms of the Vatican II period of the 1960s, which conservatives saw as a dangerous diversion. He has also, over years, instituted doctrines, individuals, and orders consistent with his theological view of the Catholic Church as the true and only authentic one.

While not as widely beloved as his predecessor John Paul II, the popular Polish pope who helped crack the Soviet hold on eastern Europe and attracted global crowds, Benedict arguably has had more influence inside the church – even as he often irritated Protestants who he said were not "authentic" Christians, angered Muslims by put-downs of Islamic figures, or unsettled Jewish-Catholic relations by rehabilitating a fringe religious society with a bishop who denied the severity of the Nazi holocaust.

Benedict's chief occupation as pope has been, observers say, to purify his church. 

To do so, Benedict crushed the liberation theology movements of the third world, put a slammer hold on efforts to ordain women and question celibacy, put earlier ecumenical impulses on the back burner, and, instead, has greatly empowered more hardcore orders like Opus Dei, Legions of Christ, and other orthodox wings, largely on the idea that the church must first cherish its most ardent believers.

Yet, while Benedict has won many battles inside the church, he is also widely seen as having lost many larger wars that he either instituted or took part in.

Benedict’s effort to reinstitute Christianity in its European context has largely failed to generate enthusiasm on a continent increasingly secular. While in pursuit of liberal priests and nuns who he implied were polluting the church with wrong doctrines, Benedict has appeared to many Europeans to be too inattentive to priests who sexually abused minors, of whom there are an estimated 8,000. The revelations of sexually abusive priests in Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and Austria two years ago brought a change to the story line that such problems were restricted to the United States

For fully believing Catholics, the Roman church is a divine, not a human institution; its leader, the pope, is the “vicar of Christ,” the direct spiritual descendant of Jesus Christ and his disciple Peter. The kingdom of heaven on earth that Jesus asked his followers to pray for, must, in orthodox Catholic doctrine, come through the Catholic Church and the pope, also known as the Holy Father.

For many modern-thinking or non-literal Catholics, particularly after the long-running church self-examination known as Vatican II, those orthodox doctrines of the identity of the church and the pope were put in question and thrown open for new interpretation.

Vatican II lead, though often quite indirectly, to a massive re-evaluation of things like the operation of the spirit in the church, the possibility of women being ordained as priests, a faint questioning of the doctrine, only adopted in pre-medieval Europe, of celibacy, and of more "democracy" or power by the laity or non-clergy members in matters of church governance.

For a rising college theology professor named Joseph Ratzinger, these new interpretations were viewed with increasing horror. They often lacked seriousness, were sloppy, and seemed chaotic and undignified.

As then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict took office in 1982 as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same office that earlier conducted or oversaw heresy trials. Yet while that office has a five-year term and most predecessors held it for 10 years at most, Ratzinger stayed 24 years, only leaving to become pope in 2005.

Now, as Catholics think through their future they will do so with a set of cardinals, bishops, priests, and church authorities that have largely been vetted through the orthodox filter set up by the Bavarian-born pontiff.

Indeed, a church hierarchy carefully pruned of liberal and ecumenical impulses may be one of Benedict’s enduring legacies, though it has brought the current pontiff into serious disagreements with powerful orders, like the Jesuits, that previously saw themselves as the main defenders of Rome.

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