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Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict shocked the world with a surprise announcement that he is stepping down. The pope, a German formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told a group of cardinals 11 February 2013 in a routine meeting that he will step down February 28 because his advancing age was making it difficult to carry out his duties. Pope Benedict will be the first pope to resign from his post since the year 1415, when Pope Gregory stepped down to resolve conflicting claims over the leadership of the church. Pope Benedict's health has visibly weakened in his eight years as head of the Roman Catholic Church -- one of the shortest papal terms in modern history.

On April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84; seventeen days later, on April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was elected the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The death of Pope John Paul II required the members of the College of Cardinals to select a new pope. On April 19, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a renowned theologian and enforcer of Catholic Church doctrine for the past two decades, was chosen to succeed his friend and close ally, Pope John Paul II. The church's ranking clergy elected Ratzinger - as the first German pope in nearly 1,000 years. Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Pope Benedict XVI and became the 265th leader of the world's largest and most powerful Christian institution.

Despite media speculation that Ratzinger had the support of many cardinals, his election was a surprise to many, given indications that other more moderate voices might prevent a two-thirds majority. The media often portrayed him as an aloof, autocratic despot. However, in meetings with Ratzinger, most found him to be surprisingly humble, spiritual, and approachable.

In response to the papal election the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, said, "We would have hoped for someone more open to the recent developments in the world..." The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) welcomed the election of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new Pope, Benedict XVI, saying that "Under his leadership in Germany and Rome, the Catholic Church made important strides in improving Catholic-Jewish relations and atoning for the sin of anti-Semitism. Cardinal Ratzinger has been a leader in this effort and has made important statements in the spirit of sensitivity and reconciliation with the Jewish people."

Benedict XVI will stay the course of John Paul II theologically; there will be no liberalization of Catholic policy on abortion, contraception, priestly celibacy, female priests, and other hotly debated issues. A sermon he delivered before the opening of the conclave indicated as much, as Ratzinger made it clear a new pope should not back down in the face of secularism and other challenges to orthodoxy.

The election of John Paul II's theologian to succeed him suggested that the College of Cardinals wanted the closest possible theological continuity they could find in a new Pope. At the same time, it seemed unlikely that the 78-year-old "humble worker in the Lord's vineyard," as he described himself will cut as prominent figure on the world stage as the young and robust John Paul II did when he was first elected. While he would certainly carry on the Holy See's global mission left by his predecessor, his focus was likely to be more on strengthening the church from within than promoting the Church's role externally.

Despite his euro-centric focus, he will also need to address the concerns of those Catholics in the developing world whose priority remains a socially and politically active church working against poverty, disease and oppression. In this regard, and more broadly on international issues, he will face a steep learning curve.

Pope Benedict will likely place great emphasis on the Church in Europe. Ratzinger believes Europe is the spiritual and historic home of the Church, and he is not ready to cede his home continent to the forces of secularism or Islam. In fact, Ratzinger made headlines in August 2004 when he expressed reservations about Turkey's prospective EU membership. He also led the ultimately unsuccessful drive for a mention of Europe's Christian roots in the new EU constitution, which became a primary focus of John Paul II's last year as pontiff. Many in the Holy See questioned the logic of this focus, given that the constitution already provided the legal protections the church needed, but it reflects the new Pope's certain attention to the spiritual future of Europe.

In choosing the name Benedict XVI, Ratzinger may have been acknowledging that at 78, and following an historic papacy, he will be a transitional figure. Benedict XV's short-lived papacy lasted only from 1914-1922. The original St. Benedict, the founder of European monastic tradition, is the patron saint of Europe -- yet another hint of Benedict XVI's intentions.

Pope Benedict's rule was tainted by a child sex abuse scandal that began long before he ascended to the papacy and only deepened as more cases of priests molesting children emerged, particularly in the US and in Ireland. In 2012, he faced a new scandal when his butler was found to be the source of leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican's business dealings. Pope Benedict was criticized by some for inflexibility on Church dogma. The pope was known for his conservative views on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. In contrast, he received praise for instituting a financial watchdog over the Vatican's financial dealings and became the first pope to communicate with followers via social media. From the start, Pope Benedict faced a difficult road, following the popular Pope John Paul the Second. He was embraced by some, but shunned by others.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:12:43 ZULU