Pope Benedict XVI may have been the 265th Vicar of Rome but only three of his predecessors have ever resigned during their tenure (the last being Gregory XII in 1415) and none of them due to ill health. The fact that all previous pontiffs preferred to cling on to their infallibility through sickness and frailty, until their dying breath, says something about Joseph Ratzinger's integrity that no other proclamation or action could.
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In his unprecedented announcement on Monday, he wrote: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith," a pope needs "both strength of mind and body." He ruefully admitted that in the last few months, his strength had deteriorated "to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Over the eight years of his papacy, Benedict was no stranger to criticism -- from within and outside the church and from many Jewish figures -- for a long list of real and imagined failings. But nearly all of them originated with his popular predecessor, the media superstar John Paul II, who was rarely subjected to the same level of scrutiny that was Benedict's lot. True, the outgoing pope is an arch-conservative who has not truly succeeded in steering the largest religious establishment in the world through the storms of female ordination, mass cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy and rank corruption within the Curia; but John Paul was no less conservative and all these wounds were festering long before his death.
For 24 years, Cardinal Ratzinger was John Paul's Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (successor of the Inquisition) -- effectively his ideological enforcer. It was Ratzinger who made sure that priests and nuns around the world would not play fast and loose with Catholic doctrine, wielding the dreaded penalty of excommunication when necessary, while John Paul got to tour the world and meet celebrities, adopting the role of the first rockstar pope. While he was the smiling face of the Vatican, Ratzinger was making sure that ordinary Catholics, faced with the challenges of modern life, would be allowed no dispensation.
When it became Ratzinger's turn on the throne of St. Peter, people still saw the man renamed Pope Benedict XVI as just a grouchy old German ideologue. Unlike Karol Wojtyla before him, who had fought both Nazism and Communism, Ratzinger had actually been a member of the Hitler Youth and a child soldier in the Luftwaffe. He subsequently deserted and was never known to have harbored Nazi affiliations, but this was barely taken into account when a combination of bad PR and ill-timed decisions caused repeated clashes with Jewish sensitivities.
He was accused of trying to canonize ("the silent") Pope Pius XII, thereby legitimizing his alleged silence during the Holocaust. But during Benedict's papacy, the canonization process that had begun in the days of John Paul and with his support was largely blocked. Benedict managed to maneuver between the conservatives demanding canonization and those who felt it would be the ultimate insult to the Jewish people.
His decision to restore the Tridentine mass with its prayer for god to "illuminate" the hearts of the Jews so they would acknowledge Christ as their savior was also the fulfillment of policies put in place originally by John Paul. However, Benedict was left with the resultant controversy and had to clarify that it was not meant to disparage Jews or serve as a renewed call to convert them. His decision to allow the return of formerly excommunicated traditionalist bishops was seen as a snub to Jewish feelings as they included Richard Williamson, the notorious Holocaust-denying bishop. But this was simply a matter of internal Vatican politics and a screw-up that could have been averted had Benedict been better advised. When the full severity of Williamson's views was (belatedly) realized, the unrepentant Williamson remained suspended from all official functions. This was not enough for many who would have expected re-excommunication, but Holocaust denial is not heresy according to the church.
"He was a friend of the Jewish people and emphasized that during his relatively short papacy by visiting the synagogue in Rome and then visiting Israel," says Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and a friend of Benedict for more than two decades.
"He continued his predecessor's legacy who made a breakthrough in the relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people and Israel," Rabbi Rosen continues. "Where he fell short from his predecessor was in public relations and the ability to put smiling face on his conservative actions and that dramatically influenced his papacy."
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