‘God’s Rottweiler’ to resign as Pope
At the age of 85, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned as leader of the Catholic Church. Ill health and old age forced him to stand down – but they have not stopped him courting controversy.
The news was an immense shock. At the end of an unremarkable announcement, Pope Benedict XVI drew out a piece of paper and told the world he was resigning as head of the Catholic Church.
It is a rare decision, and entirely unexpected. But Benedict XVI seems to have contemplated this move for some time. The 85-year-old says he now lacks the ‘strength of mind and body’ to lead the world’s one billion Catholics – especially when the ‘rapid changes’ of modern society constantly raise questions of faith.
The eight years of Benedict’s papacy have been difficult for the Church. Catholicism is declining in the West, and as its influence wanes the Vatican is torn between conservative doctrine and the demands of secular society for a more liberal approach.
When he became Pope in 2005, 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger faced the challenge uncompromisingly. Nicknamed ‘God’s Rottweiler’, he was known for ideological ruthlessness and his opposition to changing modern values. Growing up in Germany during WWII, he was forced to join the Hitler Youth and then deserted the German army; later, he gained a reputation as a reserved intellectual.
As Pope, Ratzinger resisted change determinedly. Gay marriage, he said, destroyed ‘the very essence of the human creature’; ordaining women and allowing bishops to marry, were ruled out. In Africa, he angered health campaigners by saying condoms were not the best way to prevent HIV.
But Christian doctrine had little to do with his papacy’s most damaging crisis: revelations of widespread sexual abuse in Catholic schools and children’s homes. Church leaders were accused of tolerating paedophiles and allowing thousands to suffer at the hands of priests.
Benedict expressed profound regret for the ‘sinful’ scandal, and tightened rules. But it may not have been enough. Although the Pope has worked hard to strengthen Catholicism, his successor will inherit many of the same problems Benedict XVI faced at the beginning of his term.
Hope for the Pope?
Has Benedict XVI made the right choice? A majority of commentators seem to think so. Leading the Catholic Church, Ratzinger knows, is a tough, important job. By accepting his own frailty, he ensures that a more capable man can now take the role – and that the institution can continue to provide a solid spiritual foundation for millions around the world.
But others think his decision is worrying. The last time a Pope stepped down was nearly 600 years ago, when a disagreement about leadership threatened to split the Church. Today, some say, the institution faces a crisis of similar proportions. The story of Joseph Ratzinger – frail, struggling to keep up with the modern world and ready to make an exit – is the story of the Church itself.
- Is Benedict XVI right to step down as Pope?
- Should the Catholic Church modernise, or stick more firmly to orthodox religious doctrine?
- Research another controversial past Pope, and make a presentation about him to the class.
- Write a job advertisement for the next Pope, including qualifications, demands and duties.
Some People Say...
“Catholicism must not change its teachings for modern fashions.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not a Catholic, so why does this matter to me?
- Along with Sunni Islam, Catholicism is one of the two largest religions in the world, with an estimated one billion people identifying with the faith. The Pope is considered both leader and representative of all those people, which makes him an extremely powerful international figure.
- In what way?
- In Catholic countries, the judgement of the Vatican will have a big influence when it comes to policy on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. In African nations, too, Catholic opposition to birth control, including condoms, means more people having unprotected sex and exposing themselves to the risk of HIV. But Catholic organisations also make a hugely positive contribution, providing health care and support to those in need, including AIDs sufferers.
- A 2009 Pew report found that Catholicism was declining faster than any other religion, and the National Catholic Reporter has described decline as ‘the largest institutional crisis in centuries’. For every American to convert to Catholicism since the 1960s, four have left the church, and since 1995 1,000 parishes have closed. The story is the same in Europe: in 1995 84% of Ireland’s population attended Mass once a week; now that number is 50%.
- This means a separation of church and state. Today, it is sometimes extended to describe a removal of religion from everyday life, or the belief that people of all religions and none should have equal privileges.
- Hitler Youth
- Ratzinger grew up in Germany, and was six years old when the Nazi party came to power there. At the age of 14, he was legally bound to join the Hitler Youth – a kind of youth club allied to the ideology of Nazism. Ratzinger was reportedly reluctant to join the group, and that fits with his decisions later in the war: toward its final years, he deserted the German Army.
- Ordaining women
- Women can hold a number of roles in the Catholic Church, but have very few opportunities to occupy ordained, senior posts. Bishops and priests, for example, can only be male.
- Nearly 600 years ago
- The last papal resignation took place in 1415, when Gregory XII stood down to put an end to the Western Schism. This crisis threatened to split the Catholic Church, as two men laid claim to the Papacy: by resigning, Gregory averted a leadership disaster and even potentially the end of a united Catholic faith.