Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world on Monday by becoming the first pope in six centuries to announce that he was resigning from his position as leader of an estimated one billion Catholics, but analysts were quick to point out that he could hardly be blamed for wanting out.
While the Vatican insists that at 85, age and diminishing strength were the reasons he is stepping down, many pundits argue that other factors played a key role.
Though still powerful and influential, the Catholic Church has been significantly weakened in recent decades — by rising secularism in the West, fallout from clergy abuse scandals, competition from other religious groups in the developing world and crises within the Vatican itself. Benedict’s eight-year tenure was overshadowed by the clergy scandal and by communication gaffes that outraged Jews and Muslims alike.
Benedict’s own butler was convicted last year by a Vatican court of stealing the pontiff’s personal papers and giving them to a journalist, one of the gravest breaches of papal security in modern times. That scandal, dubbed the “VatiLeaks’’ affair, saw alleged cronyism, corruption and scheming within the highest echelons of the Church exposed.
German-born Benedict, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger was enlisted in the Nazi youth movement when he was 14 in 1941, when membership was compulsory. He later said that this was against his will and that he was soon let out because of his studies. Two years later he was drafted into a Nazi anti-aircraft unit as a helper. He deserted the German army in April 1945, the waning days of the war.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger on Monday praised Pope Benedict’s inter-religious outreach and said relations between Israel and the Vatican had never been better.
Benedict visited the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
While his Nazi youth past was never held against him by Jewish groups, Benedict committed a series of missteps that angered Israel and Jewish groups, most notably when in 2009 he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust. Jews were also incensed at Benedict’s constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.
His 2009 visit to Israel drew a lukewarm response from officials at Yad Vashem, who found Benedict’s speech lacking. Israeli officials considered it a glossing-over of the Nazi genocide since the pope never mentioned the words “Nazis” or “murder” in his speech and left out the figure of 6 million Jews killed.
Throughout the centuries the relationship between Christian Europe, led by the Roman Catholic Church, and European Jews was marked by forcing Jews to reside in ghettos, expulsions, inquisitions and persecutions.
In the eyes of many historians and others, the deafening silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust still remains a mark of disgrace for the Church which preaches humanitarianism.
During 1960, the Vatican, led by Pope John XXIII in The Second Vatican Council, made efforts to improve Christian-Jewish relations and issued a proclamation that Jews should not be blamed for the killing of the founder of Christianity.
But it is Benedict’s immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) who is credited with changing the dynamics of the relationship by becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue and apologizing for the many wrongdoings done to the Jews. As a Polish priest, he is said to have advised gentiles who hid Jewish children during the Holocaust to return them to their Jewish relatives. (With reporting by AP. Parts of this article first appeared in Tuesday’s edition of Hamodia daily.)