As the Catholic Church contemplates its future direction, it would be a mistake to view Pope Benedict XVI’s death at the age of 95 as anything other than a significant moment. Though the notion of “two popes” worked better as the title of a film than as a true description of Vatican reality, the politics of Benedict’s retirement have undoubtedly been fraught.
As pope emeritus, Benedict became a rallying point for opposition to attempts by his successor, Pope Francis, to move beyond his traditionalist legacy. Benedict’s failure to properly address the sex abuse scandals overwhelming the church during his pontificate has been well chronicled. But the context of that reluctance to engage was a kind of siege mentality which he embodied — first as Pope John Paul II’s ideological enforcer (earning him the nickname “God’s rottweiler”), and then as pope. Benedict’s defensive response to western secularization viewed battening down the hatches of orthodoxy — and closing ranks within the church hierarchy — as the best antidote to the perceived relativism of the age.