The Last 20th-Century Pope

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2006, file photo, Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd at the end of a papal Mass in Regensburg, sou
FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2006, file photo, Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd at the end of a papal Mass in Regensburg, southern Germany, some 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) northeast of Munich. When Benedict steps down on Feb. 28, 2013, he reputation as a brilliant theologian will remain intact. But he fell short of the mark he set for himself on unifying the church, building relationships with other religions and restoring the church's influence in broader society. During his 2006 visit to Regensburg, he was sharply criticized by Muslims when he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman." (AP Photo/Wolfgang Radtke, Pool, File)

If reports are to be believed, Pope Benedict XVI's sudden resignation shocked even his older brother Georg. And truly, the news came like a thunderbolt. There has not been a papal resignation in modern times, if by modern we mean the post-Reformation world. A pope resigned in 1415, another in 1295.

There is no precedent for what this pope has done. His act should therefore be seen as one of conspicuous courage, of insight into his own limitations and humanity. Few men and women of ordinary accomplishment have such self-awareness. Benedict's discernment in appreciating the frailties of advancing years and his wisdom in acting accordingly are extraordinary.

But the question of Benedict's legacy arises. How do we put his career into perspective? More than anything, I believe he will be remembered as a 20th-century European man. He personally experienced the great crises of the century. He served very briefly in an anti-aircraft unit in the German Wehrmacht at the end of World War II and became an American prisoner of war at conflict's end. He entered the seminary shortly after that and was ordained in 1951.

The 1950s saw the young Fr. Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, pursue an academic career. He became a professor of theology at the University of Bonn in 1959, moving to Munster four years later and to Tubingen in 1968.

It was at the Second Vatican Council where he established his reputation, and it was not as a conservative. He was a protege of the great German Cardinal and Archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings. An ecclesiastical opponent of the Nazis in World War II, Frings was a reformer at the Council. Ratzinger, acting as Frings' ghost-writer, Ratzinger actually authored some of the older man's reform pronouncements.

The young Ratzinger formed lasting associations at the Council with other great European voices for reform, particularly Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. Together, they formed a company of daring, intellectually vibrant voices. Rahner exploring new pathways to understanding the Incarnation, Kung mining the riches of church history to reopen the question of papal infallibility, and Schillebeeckx contributing to the shape of conciliar documents like Lumen Gentium, which gave definition and clarity to the Church in the modern world.

Ratzinger, like these other theologians, was a central mover at the Council, an officially designated expert. A prolific author, his "Theological Highlights of Vatican II," published in English in 1966, has a journalist's flair to it, a briskly paced narrative of the interplay of personalities and events at the Council. It lived and breathed the excitement of the times.

Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity," published in 1968, is notable today for its theological openness. In its very first pages, the young Ratzinger confronted the central problem of the modern age -- the crisis of belief, the prevalence of doubt -- not as some dogmatist, not as some unforgiving authority figure, but as a fellow human being, sharing the same misgivings, grappling with the same insecurities, wondering himself about God's presence in the world.

Alone among his theological collaborators, unlike his friends Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Kung, the mature Ratzinger moved into the hierarchy. He became a bishop, a shepherd of souls in the strict canonical sense of that expression. In 1977, Paul VI made him Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and almost immediately elevated him to the rank of Cardinal. In 1981, shortly after John Paul II's election to the papacy, Ratzinger moved to Rome as the newly appointed Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It was in that role that he made his reputation as God's rottweiler, a zealous defender of orthodox belief. Accusations of heresy, or of deviations from true doctrine -- a quaint concept, something associated with Joan of Arc, perhaps, or some medieval schism -- made a comeback.

He came for the liberation theologians first. Leonardo Boff, the Franciscan theologian was suspended from office, silenced and finally driven from the Church. And he came for Anthony de Mello, the gentle Jesuit writer on spirituality. De Mello was mercifully dead when the Congregation finally determined that he had borrowed too heavily from Buddhist thought in his writings and so had strayed from orthodoxy. Hans Kung lost his license to teach theology because of his stance on papal infallibility in 1979, before Ratzinger ascended to the Prefect's post, but Ratzinger himself conducted investigations into his old friend Schillebeeckx for his alleged Protestant interpretations of ministry and sacrament. (Schillebeeckx was never condemned by the Congregation, but never fully exonerated either).

In his Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (1986), Ratzinger acknowledged the importance of science in understanding sexual orientation and warned that questions of "culpability" needed to be approached with "prudence." But the same letter also denounced "benign" understandings of sexual orientation with a fire-and-brimstone reading of the story of Sodom as God's "moral judgment ... against homosexual relations." Historians of revolutions speak of the thermidorian reaction, the conservative backlash that follows close behind any revolutionary time. Ratzinger had accomplished the unique feat of being not only a leader of reform, but of directing the inevitable counter-revolution against it.

This is not to say that Ratzinger did not succeed in doing some great things as Prefect. He recognized earlier than many the agonies the pedophilia crisis would visit upon the Church. As pope, one of his first steps was to strike at Fr. Marcial Maciel, the powerful head of the Legionaries of Christ. Fr. Maciel had fathered around six children (the exact number remains a mystery) with several different women while simultaneously having a series of affairs with male seminarians. Swiftly, Pope Benedict exiled Fr. Maciel to a home for retired priests, commanding him to live out his days anonymously in "prayer and penitence."

By what standard, by what criterion, are we to judge Pope Benedict? We are fortunate in that he gave us the standard when he selected his papal name. He wished to be called "Benedict," he explained, partly in tribute to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), the founder of Western monasticism and the man who planted the seeds for the conversion of Europe through the prayerful example of generations of monks. That earlier Benedict is the patron saint of Europe for his ceaseless work of conversion and the newly elected pope saw his role in the same light -- the re-conversion of Europe.

At this central task, the pope's efforts did not bear the desired fruit. Why? Perhaps because his style and methods were never adapted to 21st century needs.

Pope Benedict continued and strengthened inter-religious dialogue with Muslims and Jews. But what he never did, what he never understood there was any need to do, was to open a serious and respectful dialogue with the secular world. The man who wrote "Introduction to Christianity", the intellectually playful man who joyfully dialogued with the modern world in all its doubts and fears, was missing in action.

The most urgent task confronting the next pope is not the preservation of doctrine or the construction of Fortress Ecclesia. It is the willingness to engage in open, constructive dialogue with unbelievers. The new pope must listen, in a spirit of good will and then offer an affirming, inclusive message of spirituality and respect. We live in a world that will no longer tolerate a long litany of "thou-shalt-nots." People need to be persuaded, not coerced. And this is part of Catholic Christianity's bedrock tradition. Reason and faith are an integrated whole, after all. The new pope must be a man of intellectually curiosity, possessed of a broad, capacious, engaging, inquiring reason. He might even want to reflect on the young Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity."