The pope retires to a monastic life today, a withdrawal from the world that marks the end of both his pontificate and his public life. As historians assess his reign, they will all ask how he has changed the modern Church. What is different now from the moment when, on 19 April 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was elected as the oldest pope in 275 years?
The quick answer is probably not much: given his age at election, it was known that Benedict’s reign would be short and, after the twenty-seven year pontificate of John Paul II, that was presumably intended. Cardinal Ratzinger had also been a key figure in the Vatican for over twenty years, serving as John Paul II’s right-hand man both among his fellow prelates and in matters of faith and doctrine. His cardinalate was both longer and more significant than his pontificate, which has been in many ways a continuation of his predecessor’s. Indeed, Benedict began a process of beatification for his predecessor in May 2005, setting the former pope on the road to sainthood a mere month after his death.
The one remarkable feature of Benedict XVI’s reign has been his resignation, which recognises the frailty of the human form even when he has, according to Catholic doctrine, been chosen by the Holy Spirit to represent Christ on earth. The challenges facing the Church in 2013 will, though, require firm temporal leadership as well as spiritual guidance. The pope’s resignation would seem, at least implicitly, to recognise this.
As cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger worked with John Paul II to reposition (some would say stabilise) the Catholic Church after the reforming pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI. As pope, he continued this task, stressing the Second Vatican Council’s legacy in terms of the longer history and continuities of the Roman Church. The story of Vatican II was not that of rupture but of reflection. The Council had affirmed the teachings of Catholicism; it had not changed them.
This is, as any historian must point out, not how it seemed at the time. There is no doubt that Vatican II changed the Church profoundly. Perhaps the most significant of its many documents and declarations was that on Religious Freedom, which acknowledged the dignity of other religious creeds and the primary of the individual conscience. This profound change in ecclesiology—the Church’s sense of itself—has become foundational in the post-conciliar Church, paving the way for new relationships with other churches and faiths. An emphasis on social justice has also continued, with both Benedict and John Paul looking closely at issues affecting the developing world, where most Catholics now live.
But, despite these continuities, the repositioning of the Church after Vatican II is a unifying theme of both reigns. The period since 1978 has seen a strengthening of clerical authority. This insistence on the primacy of the Magisterium—the Church’s teaching authority—is a response not only to the laity who, since the 1960s have increasingly acted as consumers, following their own consciences in rejecting aspects of church teaching that seemed to them unimportant or misguided. The trend is most obvious in the West, particularly in matters of sexual morality, but the number of communicants in the Catholic Church is, for example, higher than those who regularly attend confession. But the Vatican’s stance is also a response to the clerical exodus of the 1970s that was among the most dramatic unforeseen consequences of the Second Vatican Council.
Many of the priests, monks, and nuns who left the Church did so in order to marry and the celibate priesthood now fails to attract enough seminarians to reproduce itself. The truly shocking child abuse scandals have inflicted still more damage, both to the notion of celibacy as a superior, more spiritual state, and to the very idea of clerical authority. These scandals have battered Benedict’s pontificate and the issue is far from resolved, as the recent accusations against Cardinal Keith O’Brien show.
Bendict’s first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est is an agile theological examination of divine love that looks briefly to the unity of body and soul. Only then is ‘Man truly himself’. But, it is hard to see how this can be the case in practice when the Church fails to address the issues around sexuality, including celibacy, in practical terms. At the level of lived experience religion is, for most people, made up of everyday practices rather than theology.
Benedict’s contribution to the ordinary life of Catholics in the English-speaking world has been the revision of the liturgy, that is the words that are recited, week in, week out, by all those who attend Mass in English. This reform was introduced in 2012 and changed responses that had been said for fifty years. Among the most telling is the revision of the response, ‘And also with you’ to ‘And with your spirit’. The change is in many ways unsurprising: it translates the original Latin and is closer to the responses already given in Spanish, Italian, and French. But its introduction at this juncture in the Church’s history seems extraordinarily inapposite as it underlines, once again, the supposed opposition between body and spirit and underscores the profound difficulties that the Church has had for so long with embodiment. This question, the now frail Pope emeritus has left for his successor.
Mary Vincent is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield. If you’d like to read more of her work on modern Catholicism you can see her article ‘The Martyrs and the Saints: Masculinity and the Construction of the Francoist Crusade’, History Workshop Journal 47 (1999) pp. 68-98 [log-in needed] or her book Spain, 1833-2002: People and State (2007).
You can find other History Matters posts on papal history and the Pope’s resignation here.
 The previous ‘oldest pope’ was Clement XII, elected in 1730.
 Caritas in Veritate (2009) http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html, which draws explicitly on Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum_en.html.