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Under the German’s meek demeanour lay a steely intellect ready to dissect theological works for their dogmatic purity and debate fiercely against dissenters.
Ratzinger first gained attention as a liberal theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council.
However, the Marxism and atheism of the 1968 student protests across Europe prompted him to become more conservative to defend the faith against growing secularism.
After stints as a theology professor and then archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger was appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the successor office to the Inquisition, in 1981.
He and Pope John Paul agreed that traditionally sound doctrine and theology had to be restored in the Church after a period of experimentation.
In the CDF office, Ratzinger first turned his attention to the “liberation theology” popular in Latin America, and drew criticism for his severity in ordering the one-year silencing in 1985 of Brazilian friar Leonardo Boff, whose writings were attacked for using Marxist ideas.
Ratzinger issued a firm Vatican denunciation of homosexuality and gay marriage in 1986.
He brought pressure in the 1990s against theologians, mostly in Asia, who saw non-Christian religions as part of God’s plan for humanity.
A 2004 document sternly denounced “radical feminism” as an ideology that undermined the family and obscured the natural differences between men and women.
His combative side came out in 2000 in a dispute over a CDF document entitled Dominus Iesus. Aimed at restating the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church against the more inclusive views in Asia, it branded other Christian denominations as deficient or not quite real churches.
Anglican, Lutheran and other Protestant churches which had been in ecumenical dialogue with Rome for years were shocked. They were further upset when Ratzinger dismissed protests from Lutherans as “absurd”.
The son of a police chief, he was born in Marktl am Inn in Bavaria, southern Germany, in 1927.
In 2002, he became dean of the College of Cardinals which elected him pontiff three years later.
Benedict enjoyed relatively good health most of his life but the first sign that he was slowing down came in October 2011, when he began using a wheeled platform to move up the main aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a book in 2010, he said he would not hesitate to become the first pontiff to resign willingly in more than 700 years if he felt himself no longer able, “physically, psychologically and spiritually” to run the Catholic Church
Before he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as “God’s rottweiler” because of his stern stand on theological issues. But it became clear that not only did he not bite, but he barely even barked.
Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor – whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and beatified in 2011 – aides said he was determined not to change his quiet manners to imitate John Paul’s style.
A professorial type who relaxed by playing the piano, Benedict sought to show the world the gentler side of the man who had been the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly a quarter of a century.
But child abuse scandals hounded most of his papacy. He ordered an official inquiry into abuse in Ireland, which led to the resignation of several bishops. But the Vatican’s relations with once Catholic Ireland plummeted during his papacy, to the point that Dublin closed its embassy to the Holy See in 2011.
Victims demanded that he be investigated by the International Criminal Court but the Vatican said he could not be held responsible for the crimes of others.
Scandal closer to home hit in 2012 when the pontiff’s butler was s found to be the source of leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican’s business dealings, causing an international furore.