Further critically-informed assessments of Pope Benedict XVI

Following on from Noel Debien’s Obituary/Evaluation of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that I posted yesterday, I have collated some further comments that I’ve found in the media relating to the legacy of Benedict.

Former priest and media commentator Paul Collins assesses the papacy of Benedict as follows: “Benedict’s most important act was his resignation because in one fell-swoop he relativised the papacy and drained it of its ‘mystery’. It showed him as a normal man who admitted that he had ‘come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.’ That required humility; the last pope to have resigned was Celestine V in 1294.”

Theologian Ben Myers explores the theology of Ratzinger-the-academic who became Benedict-the-pope:

“For over half a century Ratzinger has challenged the subordination of truth to communal belonging. From his academic career in the 1950s and 60s to his papal ministry as Benedict XVI, one of Ratzinger’s most consistent themes has been the priority of reason and truth over communal identity. In his analysis, the most urgent theological task is the recovery of reason. It is, he thinks, the most urgent social and political task too.

“Ratzinger sees the split between faith and reason as inimical to both religion and secular society. Religion becomes pathological when its claims are reduced to private exhortations to insiders with no link to a universally accessible rationality or a shared conception of the human good. And reason, for its part, becomes pathological when it is confined to the sphere of fact, measurement, and technical manipulation with no accountability to moral considerations of justice, goodness, and the ends of human life.

“Ratzinger calls for faith to be animated by rationality and for reason to be open to its transcendent foundations as revealed to faith. Faith and reason alike, he argues, arise from the manifestation of the divine Logos, who is ultimately revealed as Love: a rationality that is living, personal, and directed toward us for our good.”


Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson (president of Catholics for Choice) notes that “over the course of nearly 50 years, Benedict produced more than 65 books in theology, Christology and liturgy, as well as three papal encyclicals and three papal exhortations.”

However, she continues, “whatever contributions he made in his prolific and distinguished career may ultimately be overshadowed by the years he spent monitoring, and sometimes suppressing and silencing, the work of other Catholic theologians and ethicists. Though Benedict resigned from his papal,office in 2013, many theologians in the U.S. still struggle to separate the pope from his tenure as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.”

The uncovering of the extensive sexual abuse committed by religious in the Roman Catholic Church (and many other churches, community organisations, and institutions around the world) has been a major factor in the leadership of the church for a number of years now. A year ago, in January 2022, a report on sexual abuse in Germany’s Munich diocese on Thursday faulted retired Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of four cases when he was archbishop in the 1970s and 1980s.

The law firm that drew up the report said Benedict strongly denies any wrongdoing. Writing for APNews, Geir Moulson wrote that “The findings were sure to reignite criticism of Benedict’s record more than a decade after the first, and until Thursday only, known case involving him was made public. … Benedict’s legacy as pope had already been colored by the global eruption in 2010 of the sex abuse scandal, although as a cardinal he was responsible for turning around the Vatican’s approach to the issue.”

Moulson continued, “Benedict gained firsthand knowledge of the global scope of the problem when he took over at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1982, after his time in Munich. Ratzinger took the then-revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realized bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.”


Writing immediately after the news of his death was announced, Journalist Nicole Winfield has advocated for a favourable assessment of Benedict’s actions, noting that “it was the then-Cardinal Ratzinger who took the revolutionary decision in 2001 to assume responsibility for processing those cases after he realized bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers but were just moving them from parish to parish where they could rape again.

“And from 2004 to 2014, the Vatican defrocked 848 priests and sanctioned another 2,572 to lesser penalties, a get-tough approach to remove predators outright that went unmatched by Francis. Benedict met with victims across the globe, wept with them and prayed with them. Under his leadership, the Vatican updated its legal code to extend the statute of limitations for cases and told bishops’ conferences around the world to come up with guidelines to prevent abuse.

“And most significantly, Benedict reversed his beloved predecessor by taking action against the 20th century’s most notorious pedophile priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel. Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by John Paul, after it was revealed that Maciel sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.”


However, an article in The Conversation (first published in October 2021, updated after Benedict’s death in January 2022) collates many articles examining the crisis over the years – both its roots and the potential routes for reform. The perspective of the five authors is that this is work-in-progress for the Roman Catholic Church—whilst Benedict and Francis have taken various steps towards addressing the situation, it is still not clear that the Roman Catholic Church as a whole has fully reformed its practices as a global institution most highly implicated in this matter.


This matter will continue to figure prominently in all assessments of Benedict as Pope—and, indeed, Ratzinger in his Vatican role prior to this. And whoever follows Francis will need to take further, decisive steps—a call that will be hard to meet in the complex institutional framework of the church. Yet this will be the litmus test for how faithful the church as a whole, and its key leadership, holds to the scriptural injunctions to seek righteousness, practice justice, care for the vulnerable, and uphold the two great commandments, to love others as well as to love God.

See also

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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