Pope Benedict XVI leaves after leading the Vesper prayer with...

Pope Benedict XVI leaves after leading the Vesper prayer with members of Rome's universities at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Dec. 1, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

As much as the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 filled me -- and many Catholics -- with a sense of dread, his letter announcing his resignation from the papacy yesterday was deeply touching. Here was a man of strong German stock, but declining health, making a supremely difficult decision to step aside as supreme pontiff, for the good of the church.

Before his papacy, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's chief doctrinal office, Ratzinger worked closely with Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. He watched that incredibly vigorous and athletic person morph before the eyes of the world into a stooped, shuffling, very ill old man. It's tough to imagine that those painful memories of John Paul didn't play a role in Benedict's decision.

Whatever his internal calculus, he has made the right choice -- and he is to be admired for it. It takes courage to relinquish voluntarily the most powerful religious office on the planet, and any fair assessment of Benedict should reflect that.

But in important ways, he was a man driven by fear.

At the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, he was one of the bright, young progressive theologians. But not too long after the council closed, the young Ratzinger joined the faculty at Tübingen University in West Germany. It was there, as John Allen chronicles at length in his "Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger," that the young theologian's reaction to student unrest and protests played a key role in turning him from a progressive into a strong conservative. Fear -- of rapid change, of modernity, of galloping secularism -- played a key role in that transformation and in his papacy.

Whenever I attended a liturgy that was a little creative and unorthodox during the years when Ratzinger was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I used to joke that he would explode if he could see this.

Then, when John Paul died and Ratzinger masterfully managed the interim period, entered the conclave a clear favorite, and emerged as pope, it was a depressing day for those Catholics who had hoped for something different -- a pope from the developing world, for example.

It was a tough day, too, because the two men were so different. You had to love Wojtyla for his biography, for his actor's feel for how to work an audience, for his sense of humor. He had a difficult life, studied in a secret seminary in defiance of the Nazis, and even got run over by a Nazi truck. Suddenly, we had gone from a pope run over by a Nazi truck to one who could actually have driven one: During World War II, Ratzinger was on the fringes of the German military as a youth, and a photo of him in that uniform began circulating within minutes of his election.

To be fair, Ratzinger did desert the anti-aircraft corps. No one ever accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer, and he was a full partner with John Paul in his historic opening to the Jewish people. And the two shared a common conservative agenda. Still, the contrast between the lovable Wojtyla and the more distant Ratzinger was jarring.


Benedict started slowly. The joke was that rigid conservatives in the church had thought they were getting Ronald Reagan, a tough guy who would make heads roll, but ended up with Jimmy Carter. But that didn't last long. Under Benedict, the Vatican has taken a series of actions that reflect fear of change. It was John Paul who wrote "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," the document that said the church had no power to ordain women. But it was Ratzinger who enforced it. Most recently, the Vatican expelled from the Maryknoll order and the priesthood a great peacemaker and friend of mine, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, because of his open and unflinching expression of what many Catholics believe: The Wojtyla-Ratzinger prohibition against even discussing women's ordination is just wrong -- scripturally and theologically indefensible.

Then there's the matter of Vatican investigations of congregations of nuns and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization that represents more than 80 percent of American nuns. And the new, wooden, Latinate translation of the Roman Missal, which Catholics are still struggling to take to heart at Mass. And, fairly or not, Benedict's papacy will be tarnished by the continued unraveling of the lies and cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal.


It has been a short papacy -- not quite eight years -- compared with John Paul's tenure of more than 26. But it has been long enough for Benedict to continue shaping the College of Cardinals in his own image to fit his theological outlook. So, it's difficult to imagine the coming conclave producing a very different pope. But you never know. The Spirit is in charge, over the long haul.

One thing seems likely: Though we are a long way from seeing an American pope, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, much favored in Vatican circles these days, seems likely to be a grand elector -- one of the movers and shakers in the conclave.

For Benedict, we can all join in wishing him peaceful years ahead to continue to do what he does best -- write theology.

For the church, we can hope for at least a new face for the papacy: an Asian or Latin American or African face to reflect where the church is growing, rather than a European face, to remind us of where it is sadly shrinking.

Benedict has been, for too many of us, a difficult pope to love. But his closing act is one we should all admire.