Pope Benedict’s complicated legacy

Both his strengths and his failings are distinctly Catholic.

When reflecting on the life’s work of a public figure, it is natural to pick a moment in their career, a gesture or characteristic, that stands as symbolic of their legacy. We can’t define anyone’s character through an isolated idiom, but we can pinpoint choices they made that are key to understanding their influence.

When it comes to the late Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, I can think of no such idiom. I can point to his tenure at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he was known as “God’s Rottweiler” because of the rigidity with which he policed the boundaries of what he understood as orthodoxy. I can talk about his sophisticated theological contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition. I could focus on his resignation from the papacy or the way he became a figurehead, against his will, for the traditionalist Catholics who oppose his successor, Francis. And I would be morally irresponsible if I did not acknowledge that Benedict, though he did better than John Paul II in his response to the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis, was complicit in a powerful and widespread system that protected predators rather than survivors.

But no singular detail suffices as an index to his personality or the role he played in the contemporary Catholic Church. Because Benedict occupied a place in history where multiple social forces intersected, people often projected onto him what they wanted to see. It is impossible to write about his influence without glancing at these projections, but it would be a mistake to treat any as definitive or even accurate.