By the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the popular view toward him as a cold, doctrinal authoritarian persisted and he remained unfavorable to many, even as a steady undercurrent of devotion quietly developed. At this time, two monstrous crises were unfolding. Within the Church festered the earthshaking sexual-abuse crisis. Outside the Church, the continuing dissolution of ethical standards that characterized the rise of rampant secularism. To Benedict, the suspension of objective truth — the abandonment of divine love — was the root of both crises. Nevertheless, Benedict alone seemed accused of being the root of the abuse problem. But still he forged on, becoming the first pope to meet, repeatedly, with victims of clergy sexual abuse.
With Benedict’s character under fire — accusations that he was ill equipped to lead, that his life’s trajectory did little for the concerns of the day — it seemed that the media construction of him would prove too well fortified to debunk. But, on the contrary, his life had prepared him precisely for the age of the millennium.
He had survived under Nazi rule. He was a firsthand observer of and contributor to the Second Vatican Council. He was a university professor in a country split between contrasting ideologies, with Soviet communism and Western democracy each tugging at the reforming German heart — a heart that beat most passionately in the universities where he lived and worked. Decades later his students continued to meet — often with Ratzinger present — indicating the enduring influence of the professor-theologian. He could both grasp and articulate the malaise and acedia of people while offering hope for their redemption. Yet, in spite of all these things, he was made the prime target in a culture crying for tolerance even as anti-Catholicism remained the last acceptable prejudice. “Anyone who is not aware of the intellectual caliber of Benedict simply reveals his own incompetence or incomprehension,” James V. Schall, S.J., wrote shortly after Benedict’s abdication.
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