Benedict XVI: The German theologian who was the first pontiff to resign in 600 years

Credit: AP

Words by ITV News' James Hockaday

Today Catholics across the world say goodbye to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who has died aged 95 following a prolonged period of poor health.

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, leaves behind a controversial and complex legacy.

He took the decision to step down as pontiff in February 2013, becoming the first pope to resign from the role in 600 years.

In what came as a great shock to the community, Benedict, then 85, claimed he no longer had the strength to lead the 1.3 billion member church due to his “advanced age”.

From then on, he lived in a monastery on Vatican grounds, dedicating his post-papacy life to prayer and meditation.

Benedict was elected to become Pope in April 2005, and was the first German to hold the role in 1,000 years.

Benedict pictured after his election on April 19, 2005. Credit: AP

At the time, he was described by one cardinal as “a safe pair of hands” who would ensure continuity within the church.

The late Seamus Hegarty, former Bishop of Derry, described the pontiff as being “full of integrity” and “opposed to relativism, which allows people to pick and choose aspects of faith”.

Supporters of Benedict saw him as a great teacher who reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine and values and pushed back against growing secularism seen as a threat to the faith.

His unrelenting conservatism earned him the nickname of “God’s Rottweiler”, but to his critics, he turned the clock back on key social issues while alienating other religious communities.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, right, pictured with his predecessor Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1979 Credit: AP

Benedict, a son of a police officer, joined the Hitler Youth at 14 when it was compulsory, before being drafted into the German military two years later.

He confronted his country’s past during a visit to Auschwitz, during which he asked why God remained silent as 1.1 million people, most of whom were Jewish, were murdered at the death camp.

But under his leadership he caused great upset among Jews, and many Catholics, when he reversed the excommunication of four bishops, one of whom was a Holocaust denier.

He also sparked outrage in the Islamic world in 2006 after quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor while giving a university lecture in Germany, as saying Islam was “spread by the sword”.

Benedict was forced to apologise and said he did not share the view of Emperor Manuel II, claiming he only referenced him to “draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason”.

The incident led to the firebombing of churches in Palestine, threats from terror organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the murder of 65-year-old Italian nun Sister Leonella Sgorbati in Somalia.

His visit to Turkey later that year saw him pray at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque with the city’s grand mufti, in what was seen as an attempt to build bridges.

But months later he met former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who told him the wounds he’d caused between the Christian and Muslim communities were still “very deep”.

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Benedict was also accused of setting back relations with other denominations of Christianity after claiming they were not true churches and that Catholicism is the “one true church of Christ”.

As he made his first trip to Africa as Pope in 2009, Benedict drew widespread condemnation when he told reporters during the flight that condoms could potentially “aggravate” the spread of HIV and Aids in the continent.

Benedict also issued a firm denunciation of gay marriage in 1986, before he became Pope, and said homosexuality was “more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

In early 2022 Benedict admitted to providing false information during an investigation into child sexual abuse within the church while he served as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.

He initially told lawyers investigating the claims that he had not attended a meeting in 1980 to discuss a priest who was a suspected paedophile.

After a report claimed he failed to take action against four priests accused of sexual abuse during his leadership in Munich, he came out days later to say he had attended the meeting after all.

In a statement, the church said the omission was made not “of malicious intent, but was the result of an oversight in the editing of his statement”, adding that Benedict was sorry.

Dealing with a long history of systemic abuse within the church was always going to be an enormous challenge, and defenders of Benedict say he did valuable work to address the crisis.

He demanded that clergy take responsibility for “sin within the church”, made an unprecedented apology over the scandal, met victims and ordered the fast-tracking of reports into abuse.

"He set up procedures to get rid of bad priests," Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, told NPR radio show Morning Edition.

"He didn't do it as fast or as well as people would like, but he certainly did it better than any of the other cardinals in Rome and better than Pope John Paul II."

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pictured sitting in St. Peter's Basilica in 2015. Credit: AP

Benedict’s decision to defrock nearly 400 priests in the space of two years shows that he was on the side of the abused, even if he did make some mistakes, supporters say.

The former pope will also be remembered for committing the Vatican to European money-laundering rules to help combat financial crime within the church.

After stepping down and becoming Pope Emeritus, Benedict still wore papal white but kept a low public profile.

He was quoted a year after his resignation claiming he had undergone a “mystical experience” in which God had given him an “absolute desire” to commit himself to prayer, rather than carry on as Pope.

In March 2021 he said in an interview that “fanatical” Catholics had voiced doubts over whether he had stepped down on his own volition.

Some ardent supporters have even refused to accept that he is no longer leader of the Catholic Church. To them, Benedict insisted: “There is only one Pope.”