Pope Benedict XVI set clear and ambitious goals for his papacy quickly after he was elected: He hoped to re-evangelize the increasingly secular West. He would show that religious faith and reason could co-exist in the modern world. He would reach out to traditionalists who had split from the church and shore up Catholic identity.
He came into the papacy with the reputation of a brilliant theologian; nearly eight years later, he leaves the Holy See with that reputation intact. But because of burdens he inherited and ongoing problems in his own pontificate, Benedict fell short of the mark he set for himself on unifying the church, building relationships with other religions and restoring the church’s influence in broader society.
A look at some aspects of his legacy:
CHRISTIAN HERITAGE: Benedict dedicated his pontificate to stemming the spread of secularism, especially in Europe, where church attendance has dwindled. He condemned same-sex marriage, argued that gender had become something chosen instead of given from God, and said lack of belief was dangerous, pointing to violence that resulted when past atheist governments “tried to stamp out the light of God to instead turn on illusory and misleading glows.” Yet even as he made his arguments, acceptance of same-sex relationships grew throughout Europe and the United States.
RESTORING TRADITION: Benedict wanted to restore Catholic traditions largely abandoned during the modernizing changes of the Second Vatican Council. The pope relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. He streamlined the process for traditional Anglicans who, objecting to ordaining women and gays in their own church, wanted to become Catholic. He even donned pontifical hats and other clothing that hadn’t been worn in decades. Many younger Catholics responded to his emphasis on orthodoxy and a stronger sense of Catholic identity. But many others were alienated. In the United States alone, studies have found Catholics dropping out of the church in large numbers.
VATICAN SCANDALS: Some major scandals shook the Vatican during Benedict’s pontificate. In 2010, the Holy See’s top two banking officials came under scrutiny in a money-laundering inquiry that resulted in millions of euros being seized from a Vatican bank account. The pope hired a Swiss expert a few months ago to help upgrade safeguards against wrongdoing, but problems remained. Meanwhile, the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced to prison after stealing the pope’s personal correspondence and leaking the documents to a journalist. Gabriele said he thought the pope wasn’t being informed of the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican. Benedict later pardoned him.
PAPAL GAFFES: Benedict was a star on Twitter and his books were popular far beyond the Catholic Church. But his pontificate was marred by ongoing communication blunders. Benedict riled the Muslim world with a speech in Regensburg, Germany in September 2006 in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.” In 2009, the pope enraged the United Nations and several European governments when, en route to Africa, he told reporters that using condoms “increases the problem” of AIDS. Last year, a Vatican-ordered reform of American nuns prompted widespread condemnation of church leaders and a dramatic outpouring of support for religious sisters. The overhaul order came after bishops accused American nuns of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Last June, the pope hired Fox News Channel’s former Rome correspondent to help advise Vatican officials on how they should shape their message.
SEX ABUSE SCANDAL: Benedict became the first pope to meet with victims of clergy sex abuse. In 2010, he issued an unprecedented apology to Ireland for chronic abuse, appealing to any remaining guilty clergy to “submit yourselves to the demands of justice.” In another dramatic move, he ordered a full-scale reform of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order that Pope John Paul II had championed whose founder for years sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children. However, Benedict didn’t discipline church leaders who kept guilty priests in ministry or hid claims from parents and police. “His method was to translate crimes into sins, and sins can be forgiven, sins of the cardinals and bishops,” said author Jason Berry, who has written extensively on the crisis, including the book “Render Unto Rome.”
CATHOLIC-JEWISH RELATIONS: Benedict’s first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community. In his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death. However, he also angered Jews on a number of fronts. Jewish leaders harshly criticized Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust. Jews were also incensed at Benedict’s constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused by some of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. “There were bumps in the road during this papacy,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But he listened to our concerns and tried to address them.”