Examining Pope Benedict’s Legacy, Leadership Challenges and Unprecedented Exit

To parse Pope Benedict’s announcement, assess his legacy and look at the future of the Catholic Church, Judy Woodruff talks with Monsignor Rick Hilgartner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sr. Christine Schenk of FutureChurch and John Allen, who covers the Vatican for CNN and the National Catholic Reporter.

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    For more on Benedict's resignation, his legacy and the future of the church, we're joined by Monsignor Rick Hilgartner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops. He's the executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship, Sister Christine Schenk, a Catholic nun and executive director of FutureChurch, which calls for a more progressive church, and from Rome John Allen of CNN. He covers the Vatican for the network and for the National Catholic Reporter.

    We thank you, all three, for being with us.

    And, John Allen, I'm going to stay with you. How much of a surprise was this?

    JOHN ALLEN, CNN, the National Catholic Reporter: Judy, I think this was a near total shock.

    Just to tell you how crazy it was, I was actually scheduled today to have lunch with a senior Vatican official, a guy who works just down the hall from the papal apartment. And as of early this morning, even he didn't know it was coming.

    As your setup piece indicated, the shock isn't the content of the decision. Benedict had hinted fairly openly that he was receptive to the idea of a pope resigning, that actually under some circumstances a pope would have an obligation to resign if he's not able to continue to perform his duties. But certainly the timing of it, I think, fell out of a clear blue sky, just like the Rome we're — the rain we're experiencing in Rome here tonight.


    Monsignor Hilgartner, what about the timing of this? What does it say that he made this decision, especially in contrast to what his predecessor, Pope John Paul, had been through?

    MONSIGNOR RICK HILGARTNER, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Well, certainly, Pope Benedict, as one of Pope John Paul's closest advisers, would have seen clearly the challenges of Pope John Paul's suffering, and the way that perhaps the church might have struggled around him because of his own limitations.

    And I think it's been visible to see — the pope's weakness has been more and more evident when you see him at mass, at Christmas masses this past Christmas and some of the other major events. He sounded weaker and weaker. And he's moving more and more frailly. And I think it's a real sign of courage that he recognizes that the job is bigger than he is.

    As for the timing, this was all his own discernment and his own heart. And, as John Allen just said, no one saw this coming.


    Sister Christine, what about you? How did you read this, given how unprecedented it is?


    Well, I think it is very unprecedented. I agree with the professor.

    I think that — I don't know how he could have lived through the waning days of Pope John Paul II's papacy and not been aware of how difficult it would be to continue Vatican business. So we at FutureChurch give Pope Benedict a lot of credit for the courage of stepping down.

    The other piece I think that is — I don't know — maybe I'm a little rose-colored glasses — but somewhat hopeful is that for the first time, at least in recent history, a pope has basically said the office is more important than the person of the presidency — of the papacy.

    And so it is sort of moving a bit away from the monarchical model. It's not something that Catholics are used to. But I do think it is a step in the right direction and could bode well for the future.


    John Allen, what about that, this notion that perhaps it's a statement that the office is more important than the person?


    Well, I think Benedict, to some extent in contrast to John Paul II, who was such a swashbuckling, charismatic figure, it was sometimes difficult to separate the office from the man — I think Benedict has always been a kind of more humbler and lower-key figure.

    I mean, and you can see that in several small touches along the way. His preference, for example, for celebrating his public masses inside St. Peter's Basilica, rather than out in the square, so the focus was more on the worship space and the event, rather than on him personally. His willingness to renounce some of the traditional symbols and titles of his office and so on.

    So I think there is something there, though at the end of the day, I also think there's a danger in trying to read too much into the faith value meaning of this. I think this is one case in which for the most part we ought to take the pope at his word. His calculation was with a clear-eyed awareness of the enormity of responsibility of serving as the spiritual leader of this 1.2 billion-strong church that he simply, given his age and his increasing limitations, was no longer up to the task. He felt it was time to step aside and let someone else take over.

    And I think, for the most part, that was in fact the basis of the decision.


    Monsignor Hilgartner, there is going to be a lot of discussion about what his legacy will be. But as we begin to look at it tonight, what stands out to you?


    I among, all of the things that the pope gets involved in politically, because the pope is a world leader, because the Vatican is a country, his immense embracing of his role as pastor.

    When we look at his writings since becoming pope, there was a real shift. As a theologian, as a teacher in years earlier, as Joseph Ratzinger, he wrote as a theologian, but as pope, his three major encyclicals were not big doctrinal sweeping changes, but he was writing about faith, about hope and about charity, these basic things.

    And the real message of his preaching has always been to invite people to a personal relationship with Jesus in the most basic way. And from day one of his pontificate, that's really struck me, that he really preached like a pastor. I remember his first Christmas homily as pope, he talked about the analogy of giving gifts and receiving gifts and recognizing the gift that we receive from Jesus.

    It sounded unlike anything we had heard from popes, who tend to speak very academically and philosophically.


    Sister Christine, how do you see his legacy, what — the mark that he leaves on the Catholic Church?



    And I apologize. I appreciate the monsignor's statements. And I agree. I think this has been a very pastoral, theologically astute, beautiful, beautiful theological writing, but my, frankly, big difficulty here is, given our foundations with addressing the worldwide priest shortage, I just remember after the Synod on the Eucharist 2005, he gave this beautiful post-synod exhortation on the centrality of the mass to Catholic worship.

    And it was clear how much it meant to him and how important it was. But what I have problems with is that a good 80 percent of the Catholics around the world have no access to the mass whatsoever because there aren't enough priests. And so my take on it is, yes, he's a great theologian, but we have not addressed some of the most sweeping concerns in the Catholic Church today.

    And that has to do with the availability of priests to continue our legacy. And from that point of view, his failure to recognize the need to expand ordination beyond the male celebrate priesthood is a very — I think it's leading to a big crisis institutionally.

    You only have to look at the United States, with all the large numbers of parishes closing and clustering. In the next six years according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, we will have only 13,500 priests to serve our 17,000 parishes. In Brazil, over 80 percent of all Sunday worship is led by laypeople, because there aren't enough priests.

    And, in fact, with those numbers for — we're losing Catholics in Brazil. I think the latest number, Brazil used to be 100 percent Catholic. It's now somewhere been 60 and 70 percent. So theology is one thing. Running a church is another thing. And I think we need some help in the latter.


    And, in addition to that, John Allen, of course, we can't discuss his legacy without the story of what happened with child sexual abuse, how he and others in the church dealt with that under his leadership.


    Yes, that's right.

    I mean, Judy, of course, a legacy is always to some extent in the eye of the beholder. And, certainly, those most wounded by the child sex abuse scandals in the church, the victims, their families, others who have been caught up in this — really this plague that has gripped Catholicism for the last decade or so, certainly, they will not be able to remember Benedict XVI without thinking of that.

    Now, his defenders will tell you that he made enormous strides in the effort to make the Catholic Church a safe environment for children, remember, the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse, which he did for the first time in the United States in April 2008 and did six times total over the course of his papacy, the first pope to apologize directly for the crisis, to institute zero tolerance as the official policy of the church.

    Critics will say much of that was too little too late, too much was left undone. But that, of course, is not the only issue that people will remember about this pope. Many liberals in the Catholic Church, for example, would praise him on some fronts, but suggest that overall his leadership rolled back the clock on the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.

    Many women, particularly religious women, in the United States, nuns, will remember the crackdowns on American nuns that unfolded on his watch, while his admirers, I submit, will probably remember him as one of the great teaching popes of modern times, perhaps of all time, who for almost eight years led a sort of global graduate seminar about the relationship between reason and faith and the place of religion in a secular world.

    And I think the truth, Judy, is that all of those things have validity. All of them add up to the full picture of a pope who had his strengths and his weaknesses, and I think will undoubtedly be remembered for both.


    And, Monsignor Hilgartner, all of that I think plays into the question of what role will he play in the selection of his successor. He won't have a vote, but he selected more than half of the cardinals who will be doing the picking.


    Sure. He has selected more than half.

    And there was a question as to whether or not he would participate. And the Holy See clarified this morning in the middle of all the other news that he wouldn't participate. But his influence is clear. And I think even his statement this morning about recognizing that there are major things that the church needs to address and do that he doesn't feel that he has the stamina to be able to accomplish really sets the stage for the cardinals when they gather to begin to look at and discuss and reflect on what those issues are, as they then move into the conclave to make that decision and prayerfully select the next pope.


    Well, as we say, we are just beginning to look at the legacy of this pope, Pope Benedict.

    And we thank you, all three, for joining us to begin to consider it. Monsignor Hilgartner, Sister Christine Schenk, we thank you. And John Allen of CNN and National Catholic Reporter, thank you.


    On our website, you can read the pope's full resignation statement, take a look at modern papal reigns, and see a slide show of moments from Benedict's papacy.