Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would step down as the leader of the Catholic Church at the end of February, becoming the first pontiff to abdicate since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
Benedict’s legacy, unfortunately, is dominated by actions he took to curtail the rights of women and LGBT individuals and his deep involvement in the ongoing cover-up of child sexual abuse in the church.
Benedict has shown no interest in moving the church’s view of women into the 20th century. He has pushed for prescribed gender roles, describing moves toward egalitarianism as “a violation of the natural order.” On his watch, the church declared the ordination of female priests as a “more grave crime,” and equated it with child sex abuse.
The Catholic Church has also fought hard against new United States regulations that would provide reproductive health care for all women, even those who work for organizations affiliated with the church, such as schools or hospitals.
The church has also refused to consider any change in its opposition to equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender individuals. In March of 2012, Benedict said that Catholics should oppose same-sex marriage, and defend opposite-sex marriage against “every possible misrepresentation of their true nature.” Benedict used his Christmas speech later that year to denounce same-sex marriage.
Still, the assault on same-sex marriage pales in comparison to Benedict’s meeting with Speaker Rebecca Kadaga of the Ugandan Parliament, a primary supporter of a bill that would increase punishment for homosexuality, up to and including the death penalty. The pope was reported to have blessed Kadaga during the meeting, though the Vatican later denied that a blessing was given. Still, the meeting seemed to legitimize Kadaga’s proposed pogrom, and suggested that the church viewed fighting LGBT rights as more important than its longstanding opposition to the death penalty.
Meanwhile, the church continues to struggle from the ongoing fallout from its widespread sex abuse scandal, which Benedict has been directly tied to. During his time as a cardinal, Benedict, then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was responsible for dealing with abuse cases. Despite an overwhelming number of cases around the world, and clear and convincing evidence that the church played an active role in covering up evidence of crimes, Benedict has refused to apologize for any failure by himself or the church. This despite the fact that it’s clear Benedict was well aware of the crimes and the cover-up, and took no action against either.
Benedict XVI will be remembered as a pope who refused to modernize, refused to move his church along with the rest of the world. That is defensible, of course — the church exists to teach what it views as fundamental moral truths, after all. But it has contributed to a church whose growth in the US has stagnated, falling below that of population growth as a whole. Indeed, one of every ten Americans is today a former Catholic, a group that, if organized into its own faith, would be the nation’s third-largest religion.
Simply, Benedict XVI chose to keep his church rooted in its views of men and women as radically different, LGBT individuals as sinners and victimized children as less important than the reputation of its priests. His tenure will be remembered as an era in which the Catholic Church eschewed modernity — and modernity began to eschew the Catholic Church.
Image Credit: Marek KoĊniowski