CNWE Reflects on the Legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality recognizes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s life of service in the Roman Catholic Church. We pause to reflect upon aspects of his legacy. 

Pope Benedict will be remembered for his decision, due to failing stamina, to resign in 2013, thus breaking with a 600-year precedent of previous Popes who served until death. This marks a beneficial shift away from a more monarchical style of governance in the Catholic church. 

In his tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (1981-2005), the then Cardinal Ratzinger developed protocols to address the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and he defrocked perpetrator priests. (These sanctions were not as immediate and far-reaching as they needed to be, particularly regarding bishops and cardinals who covered up clergy sexual abuse.) As Pope Benedict XVI, he began reform to curb systemic financial corruption at the Vatican – work that continues under Pope Francis. 

However, for Catholics working for a gender-inclusive, renewing, and less clerically controlled Catholic church, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict leaves a contested legacy. As Cardinal, he was concerned with what he saw as a “dictatorship of relativism” in society and Church. As such, he moved the focus of the hierarchy’s work away from a Vatican II vision of a listening, collegial church toward a more narrow, rigid and centralized Catholic orthodoxy. This emphasis has further delayed the full participation of women, and the welcoming of LGBTQ2S+ Catholics in the church. 

Regarding women’s ordination, Pope Benedict ‘doubled down’ on his predecessors’ ban on women’s ordination. In 2010, he declared that any such ordinations were a criminal offense under Church law, subject to automatic excommunication and equal in gravity to sexual abuse by clergy. Unfortunately, Pope Francis recently codified this penalty into Canon law (#1379).

As Prefect of the CDF in 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger penned a letter to bishops that described the “tendency” to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil”. His writing has contributed to discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ persons. 

Vatican sanctions against Catholic theologians during Pope Benedict’s tenure restricted academic freedom and hampered the necessary evolution of Church teaching. Similarly, the six-year intrusive ‘assessment’/investigation and oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States was a misguided overreach of Vatican power during Pope Benedict’s term of office. Pope Francis ended Vatican interference with the prophetic work of the LCWR in 2015.

Pope Benedict’s papacy also approved revisions to the English language mass. The intent was to restore a more rarified liturgical experience of the Eucharist. The result, however, has been an amplification of patriarchal language for God and humanity, prayers that are less accessible to new English speakers and young people, and has less common ground for liturgical ecumenism. 

CNWE respectfully hopes that the legacy of Pope Benedict will be the recognition that a more centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal model of church governance does not work. As Catholics who have worked for women’s equality in the Catholic Church for over 40 years, we take heart that global voices for change are rising via the Vatican’s synodal process. We hope that the Catholic Church will chart a bold path to share Christ’s gospel of love, justice, hospitality, and care for creation more fully – with a world and planet in urgent need.