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Pope Benedict XVI: A conservative who struggled with the spread of secularism

Tuesday, 12 February 2013 - 9:14pm IST Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2013 - 9:15pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

To his many admirers, Pope Benedict has proved to be a persuasive defender of Christian values and a voice of stability in a world where centuries-old certainties about the family, the state and faith have shifted at a dramatic rate.

To his many admirers, Pope Benedict XVI has proved to be a persuasive defender of Christian values and a voice of stability in a world where centuries-old certainties about the family, the state and faith have shifted at a dramatic rate.

To his critics, he has been an arch--conservative who held back reform during an eight-year papacy that endured its share of controversies.

The Pope's time in office coincided with a decisive shift from traditional Christian teaching among many European nations, vividly illustrated by recent moves to legalise gay marriage in Britain and France and bans on crosses in the workplace and on prayers in council meetings.

It was the Pontiff, during his visit to Britain in 2010, who first warned of the threat of "aggressive secularism", and it was a phrase that many others, including David Cameron, were eager to endorse.

In Britain, the Pope will be best remembered for that visit, which galvanised British Catholics, and made strides toward reconciliation between the papacy, the Anglican Church and the Crown over differences dating back to the 1530s.

It was a process perhaps best symbolised by the moment he joined Dr Rowan Williams, who was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, to pray at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, an English king and a Catholic saint, in Westminster Abbey.

He also founded the Personal Ordinariate, the branch of the Church set up for breakaway Anglicans.

He was seen as a champion of conservatism who maintained strict discipline in the face of dissent. He reintroduced the Latin Mass and reached out to ultra-traditionalists. Yet, at the age of 85, he illustrated his ability to confound expectations by joining Twitter.

But his time in office was beset by controversies - from the so-called Vatileaks row to the fallout from the clerical abuse scandals that dated back decades.

His efforts to help heal the wounds were dogged by questions over his own position in the leadership of the Church at the time, and over how much he knew. There were persistent questions about his role while an archbishop in Munich in allowing a paedophile priest, the Rev Peter Hullermann, back into pastoral ministry, including working with children, in the early 1980s. The diocese has always insisted that the decision was taken at a lower level.

Benedict was, however, the first pope to meet victims of abuse and was instrumental in imposing standards designed to prevent a repeat of the scandal.

Only recently, he finally settled the question of the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which more than almost anywhere has been rocked by scandal, by naming Mgr Diarmuid Martin as the future Archbishop of Armagh, signalling a new direction.

Yesterday, groups representing victims of abuse in Irish institutions were among the most vocal critics, saying he "promised a lot but delivered nothing".

But Austen Ivereigh, of the British think tank Catholic Voices, said the "fruit" of many of the Pope's efforts would be seen in years to come.

"I think he was a courageous reformer, this isn't something which people always grasp," he said. "I'm thinking of the new guidelines on clerical sexual abuse which he asked the bishops conferences around the world to adopt. He has also put in place reforms of Vatican finances and introduced far greater transparency."

The Pope's relations with other faiths have not been without difficulty. An attempt to reach out to dissident ultra-traditionalist bishops in the Society of St Pius X, lifting their excommunication, outraged Jews when it emerged that the bishops included one who had denied the Holocaust. Yet he will also be remembered as the German Pope who prayed at Auschwitz.

In Rome, the Vatileaks scandal, which led to the jailing of his butler for stealing documents, led to portrayals of the papal court as secretive and faction-ridden.

There was also controversy in 2010 when the Pope softened the Church's absolute ban on contraception. While stopping short of endorsing the use of condoms, he said there were "certain cases" in Third World counties where it could be viewed that their use to prevent the spread of Aids could be seen as a "first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality".

To Prof Diarmaid Macculloch of Oxford University, one of Britain's foremost authorities on Church history, the Pope appeared uncomfortable with the liberal shift in Western society. "He couldn't cope with the sort of reforms which the Protestant Churches have been able to cope with," he said.


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