Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who served as head of the Roman Catholic church from 2005 until his surprise resignation in 2013 and known for his writings and defense of traditional values to counter the increased secularization of the West, died Saturday at age 95.
Benedict’s death was announced by the Vatican. Pope Francis will preside over the funeral Mass on Jan. 5 at St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict XVI broke several records during his papacy, including being the first pontiff to have a Twitter account. Most notably, however, his resignation from the papacy is what he became known for in recent years. On February 11, 2013, the Vatican confirmed that Benedict XVI would resign at the end of that month as he neared his 86th birthday, becoming the first pope to step down since Gregory XII in 1415.
His resignation ushered in the papacy of Francis with Catholics around the world having to grapple with the notion of two living pontiffs. In September 2020, Benedict became the longest-living pontiff — at 93 years, four months and 16 days — surpassing Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903.
As for Benedict’s legacy, it remains mixed and complex. Vatican observer John L. Allen, in a piece for the National Catholic Reporter in 2013, wrote, “A legacy, of course, is partially in the eye of the beholder. For many feminists, gays, dissident theologians, liberal Catholics of various stripes, and victims of clerical abuse, Benedict simply wasn’t the pope they wanted. Others will be inclined to celebrate Benedict not so much for what he did, but what he represented.”
Allen added, “For his part, Benedict probably won't be terribly interested in the discussion. He is, after all, a man who once joked to a French friend after the Paris papers had been hard on one of his speeches, ‘I’m like the cellist Rostropovich — I never read the critics.’”
A voracious writer and theologian, Benedict penned 66 books during his lifetime. Among the most notable are Introduction to Christianity (1968), Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (1996) and Last Testament: In His Own Words (2016). He also wrote three papal encyclicals on spiritual and socio-economic issues: God is Live (2006), In Hope We Were Saved (2007) and Love in Truth (2009).
In Hope We Were Saved, Benedict wrote that atheism was responsible for some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” in history. He focused his writing on political ideologies such as Marxism.
“It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice,” he wrote.
But Benedict also took aim at free markets. In his final encyclical two years later called Love in Truth, Benedict called for a “world political authority” to manage the global economy. He noted that every economic decision had a moral consequence and called for “forms of redistribution” of wealth — a sentiment echoed most recently by his successor Pope Francis — overseen by governments to help those most affected by crises.
Early life and education
Benedict XVI was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927 the day before Easter Sunday in Marktl, Germany, a deeply-Roman Catholic Bavarian town near the Austrian border.
At age five, Ratzinger was in a group of children who welcomed the visiting Cardinal of Munich, Michael von Faulhaber, with flowers. Struck by the cardinal’s garb, he told his family that he planned to someday be a cardinal someday. Ratzinger grew up in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Two years later, he was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps, but became a deserter in 1945. In a 1993 interview with Time magazine, he recalled seeing Jews being sent to death camps while stationed in Hungary. As a soldier, he was eventually interned in a prisoner of war camp after being captured by American soldiers and released a few months later at the end of the war in May 1945.
Ratzinger — seeking a respite from the horrors of the war — immersed himself in Catholic theology, something he called “a citadel of truth and righteousness against the realm of atheism and deceit.”
After the war, Ratzinger and his brother Georg entered Saint Michael Seminary in Traunstein in November 1945, later studying at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University. Both were ordained into the priesthood in June 1951 by Cardinal von Faulhaber, the same man who inspired him to become a priest. In 1958, he became a professor at Freising College at the age of just 31. It was in the ensuing decade (a time when the world became increasingly secular) that Ratzinger’s theology and philosophy began to come into sharper focus.
Quick rise through the Vatican ranks
During the Second Vatican Council starting in 1962, Ratzinger served as a chief theological expert to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany. At the time, he was widely viewed as a reformer.
In 1972, Ratzinger helped found the theological journal Communio, which became one of the most important journals of Catholic thought. In March 1977, he was named archbishop of Munich and Freising. He was made a cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II named Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1998, he was promoted to vice dean of the College of Cardinals and was elected dean in 2002. It was during this time that Ratzinger defended Catholic doctrine in the face of increased secularization, including teaching on topics such as birth control and homosexuality.
It was during his time as a member of the Roman curia that he wrote his autobiography Milestones, which covered the period of 1927 to 1977. The book recounts Ratzinger’s calling and ordination, his intellectual and spiritual formation and role as a Vatican II expert. Despite his reformist bent, Ratzinger was no fan of the student rebellions that emerged in the late 1960s.
“People of his age and background panicked at the thought that a new, radical, dictatorial and totalitarian regime might come out of the ‘68 uprising,” Gustav Obermair, a liberal physicist who was president of Regensburg University where Ratzinger was on faculty in 1969, told The New York Times. “Of course, this was a complete misreading of the ‘68 movement. But that is what they thought.”
Ratzinger’s eight-year papacy and legacy
Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy on April 19, 2005 — following the death of Pope John Paul II — and took on the name Benedict XVI as the 265th man to head the Roman Catholic church. Not only did he have big shoes to fill, but by 2010 Benedict was forced to deal with the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal that plagued many parishes and seminaries around the world.
Indeed, the biggest challenge for Benedict in the post-JPII years was the allegations of sexual abuse by parish priests of children and young men, particularly in the United States, Ireland and his native Germany.
Benedict’s decision to retire centered around his advantaged age and inability to carry on the demanding role of pope.
In a statement, Benedict said he had “come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise. … In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
After his retirement, Benedict spent the rest of his life living at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery located in Vatican City.
Critics blamed Benedict for his inability to stop the sex abuse scandals — both in his role as a Vatican official and later as pope — and in aiding the cover-up of pedophile priests. Benedict was largely silent on those allegations during his papacy, but addressed them after his retirement.
In 2019, Benedict wrote a 6,000-word essay, published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, largely blaming clergy sex abuse on a collapse of moral standards stemming from the ‘60s and the failure of Catholic leaders to uphold traditional teachings in the ensuing decades.
“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” Benedict wrote, noting that pedophilia and pornography had become widespread and even accepted by society.
“There could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil, only relative moral judgments,” he added. “There no longer was the good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”
While Benedict stopped short of blaming gay priests for the sex abuse, he wrote that “homosexual cliques” established inside many seminaries around the world had changed the culture of the priesthood. Some saw Benedict’s pronouncements on the issue, along with other church matters, to have come into direct conflict with what Pope Francis was saying and doing on an array of religious and political issues.
The issue highlighted the doctrinal divides in the church at the start of the 21st century and the consequences of having two living popes. In his book, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, Anthony McCarten noted: “For every papal pronouncement, there walks and breathes the rebuttal, the living counterargument — invalidating it.”
In 2020, a Vatican probe, detailed in a 400-page report, into Cardinal Theodore McCarrick found that both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had turned a blind eye to the decades-long accusations of abuse lodged against the man who would later become archbishop of Washington, D.C. and one of the most-influential Catholics in the United States.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005, he did not ask for McCarrick to be investigated because he assumed John Paul II had looked into the allegations, and Benedict trusted his predecessor’s judgment.
When more details emerged about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians, Vatican officials under Benedict decided not to investigate. Instead, they ordered that McCarrick retire in late 2006.
A report, compiled by a German law firm in 2022, found Benedict could be “accused of misconduct” over his handling of clergy sex-abuse cases when he was he was archbishop of Munich and Freising.
Benedict subsequently denied the accusations, but one of the report’s authors, Martin Pusch, countered: “In a total of four cases, we came to the conclusion that the then-archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger, can be accused of misconduct.”
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor at Religion Unplugged and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.” Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.