Joseph Ratzinger became Pope in 2005, following Jean-Paul II, after one of the Vatican’s briefest decision-making conclaves in history – about 24 hours. Ratzinger had been John-Paul’s right-hand man.
The German cardinal, reputedly austere, now took on the mantle of promoting the Catholic faith throughout the world at age 78. His detractors nicknamed him the Panzer, likening him to a Second World War tank.
His pontificate was not to be without controversy.
Eighteen months into it, Benedict XVI, as he was now called, unleashed the first storm. He was giving a speech in Regensburg when he attributed more reason to Christian thought than to Islam. He was also interpreted to have said that Islam was intrinsically linked to violence.
Around the planet Muslims protested but Benedict said he had been misunderstood. The atmosphere was calmer when he visited Istanbul three months later and, at the side of an Imam, faced Mecca.
He devoted energy to patching up interfaith relations. He needed to do that with the Anglicans after suggesting that those who did not agree with having women as priests, or in marriage for homosexuals, would be welcome in his church.
Benedict’s beatification of Pope Pius XII aroused anger among some Jews, who said the wartime Pope had not done enough to protect Jews from Nazi persecution and the Holocaust. Benedict defended Pius. His own past was repeatedly scrutinised. When Joseph Ratzinger was a boy, membership in the Hitler Youth movement was mandatory. He enrolled but was let out to study for the priesthood. At 16 he was drafted into the army, and worked in an anti-aircraft brigade, but deserted shortly before the German surrender.
When, in January 2009, the Pope reinstated Richard Williamson and several other traditionalist bishops, his judgement was sorely questioned. He aimed to heal a schism within the church, as Benedict’s predecessor had excommunicated Williamson. Following the reinstatement, the British bishop, in an interview on Swedish television, denied the Holocaust.
“I believe there were no gas chambers, yes. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber.”
Amid an international uproar, the Vatican said it had not been the Pope’s intention to appear to condone a Holocaust-denier, and Rome said an apology by the bishop did not restore Williamson fully in the church.
Benedict’s papacy was also riven by the scandal of pedophile abuses by Catholic priests, and their handling. Europe and the United States seathed with revelations that the Vatican protected the abusers. It surfaced that the Pope himself, while archbishop of Munich, had allowed an admitted molester to continue church work with children. Benedict apologised to the victims, and announced new sanctions.
There were other pontifical controversies as well: in Angola, his exhortation that wealth be better distributed, finance be more moral, like his denunciation of violence… all these messages, delivered on a continent plagued with the spread of AIDS, faded into the background when he said the HIV problem was made worse by the distribution of condoms.