How Benedict’s death could reshape the Catholic Church

AP Photo/Andreas Schaad
Believers and clergy attend a mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Saint Magdalena church in Altoetting, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022.

VATICAN CITY – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s death Saturday is an epochal loss for a church that was defined first by his resolute conservatism and later by his radical decision to abdicate power.

The Vatican said that Benedict died at 9:34 a.m. local time and that his body would be placed in St. Peter’s Basilica starting Jan. 2 for a salute “from the faithful.” Pope Francis will preside over his funeral, which will take place Thursday, the Vatican said. Afterward, Benedict’s body will be interred in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Benedict’s decline, after a decade of retirement, had been relatively swift. Francis had put the Catholic world on alert Wednesday, saying his predecessor was “very sick,” and asked for prayers.

“We are moved as we remember him as such a noble person, so kind, and we feel such gratitude in our hearts,” Francis said Saturday evening, in a prayer service at St. Peter’s.

The 95-year-old’s death is likely to reshape the church on several fronts, given that Benedict – who lived longer than anybody who had ever been pope – spanned so many eras, opined on so many subjects and influenced so many of the conservative faithful.

Even in retirement, he had been embraced by traditionalists as the embodiment of their ideals. His death leaves that movement – which at times is vocal and oppositional to Francis – without a figure of comparable clout. His death also, in the short-term, sets the church on a more conventional path, ending a polarizing 10-year period in which the Vatican had two figures wearing white, a pope and an ex-pope. That Francis as a sitting pope will preside over his predecessor’s funeral is another church novelty.

For all Benedict did to shape the church, though, his death does not cause the extraordinary tremors that would have resulted had he remained pontiff. In the coming days, there will be no conclave, no intrigue, no white smoke. Instead, the church will simply have the chance to reflect on an often-controversial figure who girded the institution against the forces of modernization and who presided over some of the rockiest years of the clerical abuse crisis.

It also must decide which ceremonial aspects to afford his funeral and burial, a delicate set of questions that will set precedent for handling the death of a retired pope. Already, one difference emerged, in that the bells at St. Peter were not specifically tolled for Benedict’s death, something that would only happen for the death of a siting pope, a Vatican spokesman said.

Sandwiched between two popes more skilled in outreach to non-Catholics, Benedict was seen as a bookish purist. He first gained prestige as a theologian and academic. He later wrote comprehensive volumes on Jesus. As cardinal, he served as one of John Paul II’s most trusted lieutenants. As pope, he vouched for an economic system that works for the “common good.”

“Christians will be drawing on his theological legacy for centuries,” said Michela Carrozzino, a Rome-based nun who had met Benedict in his retirement.

Tributes to Benedict quickly came pouring in, befitting a figure who was ordained in 1951, made cardinal by Paul VI in 1977 and was seen as a Vatican power broker well before becoming pope. Italian prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called him a “giant of faith and reason.” French President Emmanuel Macron said he worked “with soul and intelligence for a more fraternal world.”

But he was far from universally beloved, including in his home country of Germany, where the church in recent years – battered by scandal – had sought to modernize, reconsidering stances on homosexuality and celibacy, in an approach antithetical to Benedict’s. Wir Sind Kirche, a movement advocating for church reforms, said in a statement about Benedict’s death that he had brought the church to a “theological standstill” with a “climate of fear.”

The last time a pope died – John Paul II, in 2005 – there was a spontaneous outpouring of emotion in Rome, with Catholics flooding into St. Peter’s Square, many weeping. But in the hours after Benedict’s death, the square instead looked as it mostly does: with tourists taking selfies and waiting in lines to enter the basilica.

Across Rome Saturday, the city prepared mostly as normal for New Year’s Eve celebrations on a day with temperatures in the mid-60s. Children shuttled on and off a holiday carousel in Piazza Navona. Couples sipped drinks. The city said it that, after consulting with the Vatican, it would go ahead with an evening concert and other festivities on New Year’s Day, though in some instances there would be a minute of silence.

That difference in reaction, compared with 2005, speaks partly to the fact that Benedict had long been out of the public eye. It also speaks to the damage incurred by the Catholic Church over the past two decades as a result of the sexual abuse crisis and the Vatican’s inadequate response — an upheaval that ensnared Benedict personally.

This past year, a German investigation accused him of wrongdoing in several cases during his time leading the diocese of Munich, from 1977 until 1982. Before becoming pope, he also headed the powerful Vatican body whose purview included abuse cases.

“In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church’s darkest secrets to his grave with him,” the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement.

Church historians say the most significant ramification for Catholicism’s future could stem from Benedict’s decision in 2013 to abdicate power, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to do so. Francis has several times indicated that Benedict created a precedent for future pontiffs, and he said this month that he’d already written a resignation letter – in case of dire health problems.

Francis is 86 and slowed by knee pain but keeps a busy schedule, and there is no indication he might step down soon. But Benedict’s death makes it easier for Francis to consider abdication in the future. One retired pope is less tricky than two.

Benedict’s abdication ultimately looked prescient, given the CEO-like demands of the job and Benedict’s frailty. For years, he had been moving with a walker, barely speaking above a whisper.

Still, the details of how Benedict conducted himself as a retiree proved problematic for the church. He elected not to revert to his given name, Joseph Ratzinger. He remained in the Vatican rather than returning to Germany. He continued dressing in papal white. Despite clearly asserting that Francis was the lone authority figure, he was embraced by conservatives as an alternative power, particularly as Francis sought to modernize the church.

“You can’t have a former pope walking around wearing white and then be surprised when some people say mistakenly that there are two popes,” said Christopher Bellitto, a papal historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “His [death] allows the church to have some serious conversations about how it would handle a future post-papacy. And the answer is, not this way.”

The greatest sense of mourning is likely to be felt among Catholic traditionalists, who saw Benedict as a protector of the eternal truths. He spoke about the dangers of secularism and societies that didn’t allow religious points of view. With pronouncements – and sometimes with purges of liberal theologians – he held the church line on social teachings. His appointment of conservative bishops helped push the American church toward the right. He also eased restrictions on the Latin Mass, an ancient rite adored by traditionalists – a move that was later reversed by Pope Francis.

Traditionalists sometimes have felt under siege in the Francis era. They chafe at his more ambiguous style in relation to hot-button topics, including homosexuality. Francis also has reseeded the College of Cardinals with more like-minded figures, increasing the odds – although hardly guaranteeing – that the next pope has a progressive bent. Traditionalists, in interviews, said their movement would not change substantially without Benedict, because for years he had been more of a symbol than an active participant.

“I think the traditionalists who feel isolated in the church right now should also remember that Pope Benedict stood for their unity with the whole church and not their isolation,” said Chad Pecknold, a professor of systematic theology at Catholic University in Washington. “So I think the traditionalists should not retreat into sadness at the death of Benedict.”

His nuanced, scholarly way of speaking had long fallen out of vogue with the most vocal members of the faith’s conservative wing, Vincent Miller, a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Dayton.”He never uttered a soundbite in his life,” Miller said of Benedict. “He thought in paragraphs.”

For years, there had been intrigue about the relationship between Francis and Benedict, given their stylistic differences. Although their admirers were polarized, Francis routinely cited his predecessor and spoke warmly about him. Benedict said there was only “one pope” – Francis.

Saturday, leading a prayer service at a packed St. Peter’s Basilica – scheduled before Benedict’s death – Francis devoted only a short passage to the death of his predecessor, moving on to other themes, such as the nature of kindness and the way to treat others. After the service, Francis, in a wheelchair, was guided into St. Peter’s Square, where there were no signs of mourning. The Christmas tree was lit. The Swiss Guard band played festive music. Francis waved to adoring crowds.