Benedict's resignation shocking move in quiet career
Papacy also marked by controversy14 March, 12:58
(ANSA) - Rome - The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI which shocked the world on Monday seemed out of character for a quiet theologian whose career was marked by a cautious, conservative approach - although his papacy was no stranger to scandal.
Benedict, 85, announced that because of his failing health he would step aside on February 28 so that a conclave of cardinals could meet in mid-March to choose his successor.
Although his health had been a concern for some time, the abruptness of the announcement by Benedict, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stunned the world.
Ever since his election on April 19, 2005, Benedict steered a steady, strongly conservative course for the Catholic Church despite protests from reformers.
Yet he was also willing to take advantage of new technologies, becoming the first pope to have his own Twitter account, which was followed by almost three million soon after it was launched late last year.
The German-born cleric, who rose through the Vatican ranks as a hard-core conservative, stood in a dramatic contrast to his charismatic predecessor Pope John Paul II.
The son of a Bavarian police officer, Benedict's mandatory stint in the Hitler Youth was often cited despite his condemnation of Nazism as "monstrous".
The outgoing pontiff belied his mild demeanour by reaffirming resistance to non-believers and a secular society.
He drew enormous criticism over a 2001 directive when, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the former Inquisition - Cardinal Ratzinger said that sex-abuse investigations should be kept in-house.
The Catholic Church is still reeling from the fallout of the clerical abuse scandals that came to light under Benedict's papacy after years of being hidden by some Church officials. Although the Pope eventually apologized for the abuse and met with victims, the Church remained branded for having shielded priests accused of molesting youngsters and hiding bad behaviour which in turn, prevented criminal prosecutions.
More recently, Benedict has repeatedly pledged to root out abuse although victims' groups have said they were waiting to see "more concrete" actions on the abuse, which occurred in the United States, Australia, and across Europe including Germany and Italy.
However, one early stand-out moment in his eventually energetic anti-abuse campaign was his decision to remove Mexican cleric and Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, a proven serial predator and father of several children who was allegedly shielded by his friendly ties to Benedict's predecessor John Paul II. Benedict's efforts to protect the Church from scandal appeared to be consistent with his well-known belief that Catholicism is the "true" faith while other religions are deficient and that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak.
He also created controversy with the Islamic world when in 2006 he quoted an ancient emperor's attack on Islam as 'evil and inhuman,' igniting protests among Muslims worldwide Benedict also stuck to conservative lines on homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem-cell research, disappointing Catholic liberals.
He even backed a claim that condoms might worsen Africa's AIDS crisis, before backtracking.
Benedict was also embarrassed when he rehabilitated an ultra-conservative cleric who turned out to have denied the scope of the Holocaust, and he strained relations with the Anglican Church by allegedly high-handedly establishing a process for disaffected Anglicans to 'return to Rome'.
Another high-profile controversy involved the Vatican Bank, still rudderless after its former head was sacked - a move the Italian media linked to his push to get it on the UN's list of countries with flawless anti-money-laundering credentials.
Most recently, Benedict's papacy was rocked by the so-called Vatileaks affair, when his butler leaked confidential documents to a muckraking journalist alleging corruption in the Vatican.
The pope drew a line under the affair when he pardoned the former butler who had been sentenced to 18 months in jail, Paolo Gabriele, in December.
However, supporters consistently praised Benedict for the breadth and innovation of his theological writings and, even outside the Church, his first encyclical, God Is Love, drew widespread plaudits for its touching comments on love between a man and a woman.
His best-selling trilogy on the life of Jesus also gained acclaim, while traditionalists welcomed his moves to reinstate the Latin Mass in a more user-friendly form.
Supporters rejected critics' claims he was trying to turn back the clock on the liberal reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, arguing that his subtle theological thinking actually galvanised the Church's cultural and intellectual energies.