Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday that he would resign on Feb. 28 shocked the world, especially its 1 billion Roman Catholics.
Catholics in the American church, 59 million strong, likely had somewhat more mixed reactions to his stepping down than those in developing countries, where his popularity is much higher.
Benedict, 85, succeeded the immensely popular Pope John Paul II in 2005, but is more of an intellectual theologian than a global pastor. That contrast, as well as his continuation of John Paul’s policies, may mean his legacy will rest under John Paul’s shadow, several people interviewed said.
While Benedict’s trip to the United States in 2008 boosted his popularity in this country among the 23 percent who identify themselves as Roman Catholic, their attitudes toward the Holy Father are based more on individual beliefs about moral issues than on Benedict as leader of the church, according to polls and those who have watched him closely.
John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, said of Benedict’s legacy, “I guess the answer is mixed. There is a liberal wing in the Catholic Church who would see Benedict as someone who steered the church in a conservative direction that is not to their taste.”
For women, the pope “doesn’t have a particularly good record when it comes to their concerns.” Benedict famously denounced religious orders of nuns. Conservative Catholics, meanwhile, see Benedict as “the strong leader the times demanded,” Allen said.
“I think in general most Catholics admire what they see as the man’s humility and grace and I think that came through in reaction to his (U.S.) trip in ‘08.”
While Benedict was at first seen as stern and aloof, the man who said “no” as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the image of him interacting with Catholic youth made him seem softer and more pastoral, Allen said.
After that trip, 83 percent in a survey said they had “improved impressions, getting past the stereotype of him as a bull in the china shop,” Allen said.
Another source of “Catholic pride” is “the perception … that we had a world-class intellectual at the top of the church,” he said.
For many, Benedict has been an inspiration. Alex Dahogren, 20, a member of the University Catholic student group at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said Benedict inspired her when he visited the United States and “when he decided to make this the Year of Faith. Personally, I think it’s changed the way we run our organization … Remembering that we are all called to evangelize.”
Benedict’s image — and possibly his legacy — will be colored by landmark events that preceded his papacy: the reduced role of the Vatican in Americans’ view of their faith, starting in the 1960s, and, more recently, the priest sexual-abuse scandals, according to William D’Antonio, professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The importance of the “teaching authority claimed by the Vatican” has declined among U.S. Catholics for years, according to surveys D’Antonio has done since 1987.
“The question of the way the laity look at the authority of the Vatican is not one of the four or five items that’s at the top of their list,” D’Antonio said. Only three in 10 say it’s important to them, far less than Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the sacraments, the Virgin Mary or concern for the poor.
This erosion in respect for church authority goes back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical banning artificial birth control in 1968, which overruled two commissions that would have permitted it, D’Antonio said. “It was rejected by a majority of theologians; it was rejected by the laity,” he said. From that point, he said, “What happened was the Catholics had an opportunity to think about this in their own lives.”
And Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, labors in the shadow of the sexual-abuse scandals that came to light before he was elected pope, but which has further eroded church authority.
“So many cardinals and bishops covered up and protected the priests rather than the victims and Ratzinger himself, the evidence shows, did not act,” nor did John Paul, said D’Antonio.
In 2010, Gallup reported that Benedict’s favorability rating had dropped to 40 percent because of the sexual-abuse scandals, down from 63 percent in 2008, after his U.S. visit.
AUTHORITY OVER THEIR OWN LIVES
American Catholicism is diverse, with attitudes and practices differing largely based on age.
More U.S. Catholics see themselves as having greater authority over their own lives than do their church leaders. According to D’Antonio’s survey, 20 percent defer to the pope and bishops on divorce and remarriage, 19 percent on abortion, 16 percent on non-marital sex and on homosexuality, and 10 percent on contraception. All of these are considered unalterable teachings of the pope as head of the church.
The most devout Catholics are those born before the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965 and brought major changes to the church, such as ending regular celebration of the Latin Mass. D’Antonio defines “pre-Vatican II Catholics” as those born before 1941.
There are many Catholics who welcomed the changes after Vatican II, but are concerned that John Paul and Benedict tried to bring the church back to the time before the reforms. D’Antonio defines Catholics born between 1941 and 1960 as Vatican II Catholics, who made up almost half of all Catholics in 1987, according to a 2011 article in National Catholic Reporter, which is an excerpt from an upcoming book.
The most recent generation, born after 1979, tend to set their own moral compass and are more interested in the church’s concern for the poor and the environment, D’Antonio writes.
Others see the move back to the days of the Latin Mass and more formal liturgy as a positive.
“Much of the good that’s happened in the church, restoring the liturgy to some semblance of sacredness — he’s had a role in that,” said Jack Fowler, of Milford, Conn., publisher of National Review, who attends church daily and says the rosary “several times a day.”
Fowler is pleased that “rock ‘n roll on the altar” has had its day.
“I think Benedict brought stability and clarity to the liturgy and that’s the most important part of our faith … the Mass; it’s critical,” Fowler said.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press in Florida, goes even further. “The heart of the Catholic Church is the worship of God and the liturgy and (Benedict) was one of the greatest liturgists we’ve had in 100 years,” said Fessio, who called Benedict “a giant” with “a brilliant mind” who is “a good listener” and, like John Paul, an admirer of the arts.
Fessio’s definition of a true Catholic is unyielding. “You have to accept those things that are taught by the Catholic Church as part of our faith,” he said. And there are plenty of those in this country.
“Every day we ship out a stack of books that’s as high as the Empire State Building,” Fessio said of his publishing house, whose titles include “Modern Moral Problems” and “Contemplative Provocations.”
Others take the opposite view. Sister Jeannine Gramick of Maryland, a member of the Sisters of Loretto and board member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, said, “Our evaluation of his legacy is he has turned the clock back in not affording the laity their rightful place in the church, which is to be active participants in the church.”
Starting with Pope John Paul and continuing under Benedict, the Vatican has become “more monarchical and less democratic than the Second Vatican Council envisioned it to be,” Gramick said.
Benedict also launched investigations of several sisters’ orders that play active roles in society, some of which are outspoken in their dissent.
“Our feelings are of hurt, some are very angry and we just feel affronted that we are underappreciated and undervalued,” she said.
MOST FOCUS ON THEIR PARISH
While there are those who are unhappy with Benedict’s eight-year papacy, 74 percent of American Catholics were satisfied with the leadership of their bishop and the pope, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Both, however, fell behind sisters and their parish priest, who were favored by 83 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
“By and large, most Catholics are not thinking about what’s going on in Rome … but what’s going on in their local congregations,” said Jon Nilson, professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago.
The American church is evolving, remaining at about 23 percent of the U.S. population, but becoming more heavily Hispanic. This shift may not change attitudes much, however. While 53 percent of American Catholics favor same-sex marriage, 54 percent of Latino Catholics do, according to the Pew Forum.
“The diversity is sort of the key here,” Nilson said. “There would be a certain group that would reflexively applaud and honor his legacy simply because he’s the pope.” Others “fundamentally agree with his priorities and perspectives,” such as having “opened the door to return to the use of Latin and some of the older styles of liturgy,” while a third group “would be pretty dissatisfied,” because of those decisions and what they see as a lack of action on issues such as same-sex relationships, women’s roles and the sexual-abuse scandals.
Besides the liturgical reforms, one of the strong messages of Vatican II was greater involvement by the laity. “Many people would say there’s got to be more public conversation in the church. There are major issues facing the church that a lot of thoughtful people have given a lot of time to,” Nilson said, including the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and same-sex relationships. But the pope refuses to open a dialogue on these issues.
Benedict “may be the last pope whose fundamental education and perspectives were formed prior to the Second Vatican Council,” Nilson said.
“I think that for being such a great intellect that he was, he really had a blind spot when it came to issues of homosexuality with all the wealth of discussion around the world,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministries in Mount Rainier, Md., which advocates for LGBT rights. “He seemed content to stay with knowledge that was hundreds of years old.”
DeBernardo said that as Cardinal Ratzinger and as pope, Benedict “was the architect of some of the worst anti-gay policies that the church has had. … I’m hoping that the next pope will be more open to discussion of LGBT issues and will listen to the lives and reality of LGBT people and their faith.”
The most damaging issue Benedict has had to deal with, however, is the sexual-abuse scandal, which he inherited. While he has met with victims, something John Paul never did, Benedict has not done enough to tend to the victims or to sanction the perpetrators, according to several people interviewed.
“My own sense is that the average Catholic knows that the whole thing was terribly mismanaged in 10,000 different ways,” said Nilson.
Fowler, the conservative publisher of the National Review, said “I think he has maybe a B if I were giving a grade. The (abuse) problem persists. I hope and pray that … the molestation has stopped.”
“I still think they have a bit of a tone deafness to what’s transpired … I do think the church should be more aggressive.
“Our church has a long history of being too obtuse to crimes committed by clergy and I feel in the last 10 years things are better but we still have a long, long way to go,” Fowler said.
Barbara Blaine of Chicago, president of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Benedict should have done much more.
“I think that it’s very important that we look at the pope’s actions and judge him by his accomplishments, not on his words and not what he said,” she said. “Because I believe that while he may have made lofty statements, those statements have really not done anything to protect children. And the way to protect children is to take concrete action.”
Among those actions are ordering bishops to post identities of sexual predators on their websites, which about 30 bishops have done, to order bishops if they have “any information or documents or evidence that they have about sex crimes that they should turn that over to the police.”
It’s impossible to know how much the scandal will damage Benedict’s legacy over time. Many Catholics place the blame only on the perpetrators, not on their superiors.
Vanderbilt’s Alex Dahogren, who thinks Benedict handled the issue well, doesn’t blame the Vatican. “The sex-abuse scandals are more on individuals than on the church,” she said. “It’s not a reflection on the church.”
As a new pope is elected, possibly someone from a younger generation, the National Review’s Fowler is looking for someone similar to John Paul and Benedict. “We have to be people of hope,” he said. “We’ve had two very good stewards of the faith in very difficult times in a world that’s gone hog wild on materialism and without them the state of the church should have been much worse.”