As pope, Benedict wrote three encyclicals, and all of them at least touched on secularism and this modern crisis in some way — critiquing modern attitudes on “pure sex” and love; on misplaced faith in modern secular ideologies; and on the limits of capitalism when it tries to do without “brotherhood among individuals and peoples.”
Although it did not register in the popular press, one of the biggest changes of Benedict’s papacy could be his impact on the Catholic liturgy.
In 2007, Benedict loosened restrictions on celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, putting the freedom to determine which Mass to use in the hands of individual priests, rather than local bishops. Traditionalists had long complained that bishops had not been as free with their permission.
But typically, Benedict said in a letter that his decision was an implementation of the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 and not a break with it. He used the letter to decry “deformations of the liturgy” because of what he said was a misguided sense that the Second Vatican Council was “authorizing or even requiring creativity.”
Cardinal Ratzinger went into the Second Vatican Council with a reputation as a reformer, but soon came to the conclusion that the post-Conciliar church was taking the teachings to mean things they did not and implementing proposed reforms poorly. He became known for urging a “reform of the reform” in liturgical matters.
Although the work began under John Paul, Benedict approved a new translation of the Mass for the English-speaking world, which took effect in December 2011.
Beyond his work within the church, Benedict’s legacy will be judged in part by his handling of the church’s sex-abuse crisis, both because of the decades of abuse itself and the role the church’s bishops played in covering up for abusive priests.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger was granted oversight over all cases involving sex-abuse claims against church officials, despite his office’s primary task being the intellectual task of orthodoxy oversight. He got a first-hand account of the scope of the problem as reports of abuse were sent to his Vatican office.
“He called it his ‘penitential Friday’ because he would read the files that would be coming in on allegations about clerical sexual abuse. He saw basically everything from around the globe,” said Christopher Ruddy, associate professor of historical and systematic theology at Catholic University.
Once he became pope, Benedicts handling of the sex-abuse crisis, though it drew criticism, was also widely considered to be far more aggressive than that of John Paul II.
Unlike John Paul, he personally met with victims of clergy sex abuse on several of his foreign trips, including one to the U.S. He also issued an unprecedented apology to Irelands Catholics over decades of systematic sex abuse and told guilty clergy to “submit yourselves to the demands of justice.”
Benedict also moved strongly against the Legion of Christ, ordering a full-scale reworking of an order that had enjoyed the favor of John Paul but whose now-repudiated founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had serially abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
“A consensus has emerged that he has been proactive. I don’t think, obviously, everything has been perfect, but I think he has done more than anyone else in Rome on this,” Mr. Ruddy said. “He was attuned to this and out in front of it in a way that really no one else in Rome was. As pope, the relative quickness that he moved on the case of Father Maciel was proof of that.”