Very few figures within the contemporary Church have influenced it as deeply and for as long as Pope Benedict XVI, who died Dec. 31 at 95. The lasting legacy of Joseph Ratzinger – whom author George Weigel told OSV News was “one of the most consequential Christian figures of modern times” – will be a part of the universal Church for generations to come. Here is an analysis of six pivotal points of the global legacy of the late pope emeritus.
Vatican Council influencer
Joseph Ratzinger will go down in history linked to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), of which he was first one of its protagonists in the shadows and later one of its most consequential interpreters.
When the council opened in 1962, Father Ratzinger, only 35 years old, was one of the stars of the new German theology. Cardinal Joseph Frings, then head of the German bishops’ conference, took Ratzinger to the council as an expert, and in that position he played a fundamental role in the development of the conciliar documents on the Church, revelation and sacred Scripture.
“The council’s purpose was to give a new, fresh, compelling articulation to the ancient truths of the Catholic faith,” Weigel told OVS News. “And during the four years of Vatican II, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the three most influential theologians helping to shape both the bishops’ reflections on these ancient truths and in formulating that fresh presentation of those truths.”
After five years as archbishop of Munich, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II, with whom he had crossed paths at the council – when John Paul was still known as Karol Wojtyla. As the Polish pope set forth to implement Vatican Il, Ratzinger became his closest collaborator on those same subjects on which he had previously influenced the council as an expert.
The council opened new paths for the Church, especially in three areas: the relationship of faith with science; the relationship of the Church with the liberal state; and finally, the links of the Catholic Church with other religions. On these three issues, the differences between the teachings of the previous councils and that of Vatican II were so striking that it seemed to many that the church had taken a leap into the void.
Faced with interpretations from all sides that Vatican II was a “rupture” with tradition, Ratzinger, first as a theologian, then as John Paul II’s adviser, and finally as Pope Benedict XVI, defended an interpretation of continuity. He explained this a few months after he was elected pope, in a speech delivered Dec. 22, 2005.
The truths taught by Vatican II, he argued, were already present in the doctrine transmitted by the Church. Vatican II only took care to make them explicit, thus maintaining a continuous evolution of Catholic doctrine. In keeping with the council, Ratzinger wanted Christ to be at the center.
“Ratzinger at Vatican II was convinced that the Church’s address to the world, the Church’s proposal to the world, had to be less ecclesiocentric and more Christocentric,” said Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer and author of “God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.”
“The Church had to offer a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, not simply a meeting with the institution of the Church,” Weigel said. “I think this will be something the Church continues to learn from in the decades and centuries ahead.”
The Ratzinger way of handling the abuse crisis
Pope Benedict XVI also leaves behind a lasting legacy in the reforms made necessary by the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Church in recent decades.
Ratzinger’s life was changed forever when John Paul II asked him to lead the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) in 1981. As Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson describe in their book “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (OSV, 2010), Cardinal Ratzinger dedicated Fridays to working on cases regarding abusive priests — a task that became his personal Way of the Cross. He knew, well before anyone else in the Vatican, what kind of wounds sexual abuse leaves and the lasting impact it has on the lives of the victims.
“He was quite fierce in his determination to get at these problems,” Weigel told OSV News.
When it was clear the bishops were not handling the cases well in their dioceses, the remedy came directly from the CDF in the form of the motu proprio “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” published in 2001. Signed by John Paul II, the document officially asked, among other things, that all cases involving the abuse of minors be sent to Ratzinger’s desk.
“Cardinal Ratzinger moved the responsibility for dealing with it into his own hands. And then while he was pope, he continued to cleanse the Church of this ‘filth,’” Weigel said. “So I think he gets full marks for the way he handled this abuse crisis as prefect of CDF and as pope.”
In 2010, Benedict XVI further tightened Church legislation regarding abuse by updating John Paul II’s “Norms Concerning the Most Serious Crimes.” The pontiff expressly indicated that the Church should hear and treat victims with respect, fully cooperate with civil authorities, and work quickly to expedite such cases according to canon law.
That same year, the pope sent a letter to Catholics in Ireland to help them prepare guidelines for the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of children by clerics, which proved itself a historic moment. As Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi affirmed in a Holy See Press Office news release from 2016, this pastoral letter is “the necessary reference document for the conversion and renewal of the ecclesial community from the dramatic experience of abuse.”
The pope also cared greatly for the victim-survivors of clergy abuse, taking time to officially meet with survivors in April 2008 during his pastoral visit to the United States —- first pope ever to do so. From then on, when Benedict XVI traveled to a particularly affected country, be it the U.S., Australia, Malta, the United Kingdom or Germany, he made a point of meeting with victims to ask for forgiveness, in private and in public, in the name of the Church and to console them.
While in Australia for World Youth Day in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass for the victims of clerical abuse. “That was a beautiful Mass,” Australian Cardinal George Pell told OSV News. “He greeted each one of them. And I know that the victims who were there were deeply moved and deeply grateful. He was a man of genuine compassion.”
In 2013, following Benedict’s resignation, Pope Francis continued on the path begun by the German pope, with new documents and measures that affirmed Benedict’s decisions. When a January 2022 German report on the Archdiocese of Munich stated that, when he was archbishop, Joseph Ratzinger allegedly failed to act over four cases, the Vatican released a letter in which the former pontiff asked forgiveness for any “grievous fault.”
The Catechism: a gift to all Catholics
Pope Benedict XVI’s contribution, first as a cardinal and later as pope, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, widely is viewed as one of the most important magisterial acts since the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council. Arranged in four main parts, the catechism sought to clarify and re-propose the Church’s doctrine in accord with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
As CDF prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger chaired the drafting commission, which spent six years compiling the catechism at Pope John Paul II’s request. He later described its publication in October 1992, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, as “a miracle.”
As pontiff, Benedict XVI went on to approve a new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in June 2005 (published in English a year later), which condensed the catechism’s contents in a more concise and accessible form around key questions. It was followed by a youth edition, known as YouCat, in 2011.
The aim, Benedict explained at the time, was to provide a deeper understanding of the Church and a “new impulse for evangelization.” He desired an “authoritative, reliable and complete text on the essential aspects of the Church’s faith,” which also contained “only the essential, fundamental elements of Catholic faith and morals, simply expressed.”
“The Catechism itself should be seen as the final act of Vatican II reforms,” Father Roberto Regoli, professor of Church history at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, told OSV News. “And the role of Benedict XVI was central to this, in coordinating and defining the Catholic Church’s faith and pastoral doctrine for new times.”
Benedict XVI and a ‘Church for all’
In an effort to revitalize the Catholic Church, particularly in Europe, Pope Benedict XVI issued guidelines in July 2007 allowing a wider use of the 1962 Roman Missal. His apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum” was widely seen as a bid to heal wounds with traditionalist Catholics who often weren’t allowed to practice this form of worship in their local churches. As a result, some turned to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist religious order in irregular communion with Rome after its founder, the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained four of his priests bishops without permission resulting in his excommunication.
The pope said his initiative drew from earlier work by John Paul II, who had allowed diocesan bishops the ability to permit the celebration of the older form of the Latin Mass, and which was intended as a gesture to those “attached with such love and affection to earlier liturgical forms which deeply shaped their culture and spirit.”
The motu proprio, however, was opposed by some Catholics who described it as a rollback of Vatican II reforms.
In November 2009, Benedict also made pastoral provisions for Anglicans who had requested to join the Catholic Church but who desired to keep their Anglican heritage. His apostolic constitution, “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” offended some Anglican leaders. However, it also came at a time when many Anglicans, including those requesting full communion with the Catholic Church, saw Anglicanism permit unilateral ordination of women and increasingly adopt positions at odds with traditional Christian morality, making ecumenical relations more difficult.
Today, the Catholic Church has three ordinariates for these Catholics of the Anglican tradition – one for the United Kingdom, one for North America, and a third for Australia and Pacific Rim countries.
Benedict XVI also had a special affection for African Catholics. In the fast-growing African church, which had tripled in recent decades to around 146 million members, Benedict took steps to address crises stemming from worsening poverty, AIDS, religious fundamentalism, as well as from what he described in an October 2009 message as the “toxic spiritual garbage” of Western materialism.
In November 2011, in the apostolic exhortation “Africae Munus,” Benedict reflected on themes and issues discussed during a Synod of Bishops two years before. He offered African Catholics “guidelines for mission” in becoming “apostles of reconciliation, justice and peace.” The exhortation was issued during a papal visit to Benin, Benedict’s second to Africa after a pilgrimage to Cameroon and Angola in 2009.
Relationship with the Muslim world
Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s groundbreaking outreach to other faiths, including Islam. However, his efforts backfired in his second year as pope when, in a September 2006 address on faith and reason at his former university in Regensburg, Germany, the pontiff appeared to link Islam with violence by quoting a one-time Byzantine Emperor’s criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.
The incident came amid tension following the previous year’s publication of anti-Muslim cartoons in Western Europe, which the new pope had condemned as disrespectful and hurtful. This event, only five years after 9/11, triggered Muslim protests and riots from Gaza to India, as well as a death threat from al-Qaida.
Benedict later apologized for his comments at Regensburg through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, saying he regretted that “some passages” from his speech could have “sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers.” On a historic visit to Turkey that November, Benedict appealed for Christian-Muslim reconciliation and called on all religious leaders to “refuse support for any form of violence in the name of faith.”
Meanwhile, in an open letter to the pope and other Christian leaders in October 2007, more than 130 Muslim personalities also urged “peace and a better understanding” – a message taken up by Benedict himself when he addressed the first-ever Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican in November 2008.
“Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members, and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions,” the joint declaration duly noted. “They are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all.”
In numerous messages, the pontiff urged Christians to be open to Muslim refugees and migrants, and he warned of growing distrust and disdain for Western secularism and materialism among Muslim societies in Africa and Asia.
“Although his original Regensburg speech marked an initial weak point in (Benedict’s) pontificate, it’s clear retrospectively that the conflict which flowed from it also provided an opportunity for new Catholic-Islamic approaches,” Father Regoli, the Gregorian University professor, told OSV News.
“It also started a top-level dialogue and new forms of cooperation, without which the interfaith work by his successor, Pope Francis, would have been impossible,” he added. “Pope Benedict showed how religious and cultural diplomacy could be put to use in service of a new vision of world harmony.”
The pope that showed the world how to step down with dignity
There have not been many popes in history that have stepped down from office – indeed Benedict XVI decided on something that seemed unthinkable in the modern papacy. Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to resolve the Great Western Schism after serving as pope for nearly nine years, was the last one to step down before Benedict XVI.
“I think (Pope Benedict’s resignation) was an honest decision by an honest man who really believed that he had reached the end of his physical and perhaps intellectual capacity to give the Church the leadership it needed,” Weigel told OSV News. “I think it was also an act of quite striking humility.”
The decision was shocking both outside and inside the Vatican.
“I remember not understanding the decision completely,” Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski told OSV News. “It was for us almost like the world has just crumbled.” Cardinal Krajewski is Pope Francis’ top charity man at the Vatican, where he has served for almost three decades. Hearing that the German pontiff had resigned was painful for him.
“Back then we didn’t see why he made this decision which we now know was very much thought through,” the Polish cardinal said. “But when he became a prayer ‘backup’ for Pope Francis – when he supported the reigning pope with his silent strength – only then I started to admire his decision and determination, which were driven from his spirituality, responsibility for the Church and love for the Church.”
Today, almost a decade after Benedict’s resignation, abdication from the papacy is seen as something the Church can expect. Pope Francis himself admitted in a recent interview for Spanish ABC magazine that he had prepared a resignation letter in the event of health problems. It was Benedict XVI that showed the way of this “first” in the modern history of the papacy, offering a lesson in humility and giving an example of what it means to be a pope emeritus.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI also brings us back to where we started in this discussion of the pontiff’s global legacy – his Second Vatican Council heritage. Before the council, it was not the norm for bishops to retire. After the council, it became common – though not with the papacy. With his resignation as Bishop of Rome, Benedict built upon Vatican II’s understanding that episcopal leaders could, and perhaps should, relinquish their role in governance – setting a precedent for how future pontificates can approach their time in office. Now, upon his death, many are already calling Benedict XVI “the great.”