Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, resigned Feb. 28. His resignation announcement on Feb. 11, which cited deteriorating physical strength due to old age, had surprised the world. He is said to be the first pope to relinquish the office since Pope Gregory XII did so in 1415, when the Papal Schism was coming to an end.
Benedict’s decision testifies to his sincere attitude toward his duties as head of the Roman Catholic Church. He mentioned the physical and mental demands of the papacy in a world that is rapidly changing because of advances in science and the diversification of values. Contemporary issues such as bioethical questions increasingly challenge the church’s ideas of morality. Benedict must have thought that, given his physical conditions, his resignation would best serve the interests of the church.
Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, is a distinguished Catholic theologian who taught at several German universities. Although considered theologically conservative, he is said to have made great contributions to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, which prodded the church to deal squarely with the modern world and to adopt an open attitude toward Protestantism and other religions.
After settling in Rome in 1981, he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He served in this important office for many years.
But he faced many difficult problems after he was elected the successor to Pope John Paul II in 2005. A series of child sex-abuse cases involving Catholic priests surfaced, and Benedict was criticized for taking too little action against sex offenders in the priesthood. In June 2012, there was suspicion of money laundering involving the Vatican Bank. In October 2012, Benedict’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing the pope’s private correspondence. There were even rumors of a power struggle inside the Vatican.
These events must have been nearly unbearable for a dedicated academic theologian like Benedict and, coupled with his age, must have exhausted him.
In 2006, Benedict met fierce criticism from the Islamic world for allegedly criticizing jihad by quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus. Behind his remarks might have been his eagerness to revive Christianity in Europe. In his 2011 book, Benedict dismissed the view that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, winning widespread praise. Generally speaking, however, the Vatican’s dialogue with other religions did not make much progress under Benedict, although such dialogue is essential to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It is believed that he tried to prevent liberal aspects of the council’s decisions from becoming too prevalent.
The influence of a pope on political leaders as well as on followers of other religions and nonbelievers is enormous. It is hoped that his successor, to be elected this month, will have the courage to honestly face and tackle complex contemporary issues and to help lead the world to peace.