Yes, Pope Benedict XVI came into the Vatican with a reputation as “God’s Rottweiler.” Yes, he is an arch-conservative who has seemed to care a lot more about liturgical orthodoxy than the plight of the church’s progressives. Yes, he hasn’t escaped the shadow of the superstar and sanctified pope who preceded him. And yes, he has largely failed in his placeholder pontificate to establish an emotional connection with the billion people he has led as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
But Benedict’s astonishing announcement Monday morning that he would be the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign spoke directly to his less-acknowledged, but perhaps more enduring and important, legacy in one of the world’s most hermetic institutions: a modicum of accountability.
In 2005, Joseph Ratzinger, a priest from Bavaria, became Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pope.
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The pope who came to prominence for his theological genius and doctrinal enforcement has distinguished himself within the Vatican for his unexpected willingness to bring greater transparency to the Roman Curia, a gerontocracy populated by department heads who oversee church governance with little to no accountability.
By telling cardinals Monday that “in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict, 85, essentially argued that something as mundane as management is important enough to sacrifice the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
“The pope made his decision out of love for the church,” said Greg Burke, the communications director for the Vatican. “It was a decision made out of humility and responsibility.”
In his eight years as pope, Benedict has become most known for his public relations fiascoes, from accidentally insulting Islam to unknowingly lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust denier to suggesting that condoms are acceptable for male prostitutes. His tin ear to the modern world and his lack of magnetism made him an easy mark, but they also were distractions from his efforts within the church hierarchy.
While his critics charge that he did not use the full weight of his office to hold bishops and cardinals accountable for protecting child abusers in the priesthood, he took substantially greater steps than John Paul II to rid the church of what he called the “filth” of the sex abuse scandal. And though hardly anybody besides close followers of his pontificate noticed, Benedict enacted a 2010 Motu Proprio— Latin for a papal decree of “his own impulse” — that called for greater transparency in the church’s financial practices to combat money laundering and, more broadly, the church’s reputation for corruption. The decree allowed for the vetting of church accounts by outside Council of Europe inspectors, a regular practice for modern governments but a revolutionary one for a millennia-old institution in which privacy is paramount.
That glasnost was not universally embraced in the Vatican, where many officials think the pope went too far to appease the outside world. There is a strong current of thought within the Curia that if the church has survived this long with a medieval approach to governance, why buckle to outside demands now?