Pope Benedict XVI: a paradoxical pontiff

History may well be kinder to Joseph Ratzinger than his contemporary critics.

Retiring from office is probably the most radical thing that Joseph Alois Ratzinger has done since becoming Pope almost eight years ago. The tradition of popes dying in office is so well established that many people found it inconceivable that Benedict XVI would step down, even though he had in fact been dropping hints for years: for example, saying in a book published in 2010 that a pope might have to resign if he was "no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out his duties". The last pope to resign of his own volition, Celestine V at the end of the 13th century, spent his final months languishing in a dungeon after his successor started worrying he might want to stage a comeback. Ex-pope Benedict's retirement will, one hopes, be rather more peaceful.

True to form, he chose to drop his bombshell while speaking in Latin during a meeting of cardinals – rather than, say, on his recently opened Twitter account. He thus leaves the papacy, as he entered it, as a figure somewhat out of place in the modern world: a quiet, learned, intellectual defending a highly traditional interpretation of Catholic doctrine. His reputation as an arch-conservative was firmly established during his many years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department that once bore the less people-friendly name of Inquisition. As pope, he has re-introduced old forms of worship (and a few obscure items of papal regalia), has invited Anglican traditionalists over to Rome, has appointed hardliners to key positions and enforced discipline (for example, by cracking down on feminist American nuns). He has spoken out in harsh terms against moves towards same-sex marriage in several countries, including the UK. Over the past year, with the Pope's personal encouragement, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States has spearheaded a conservative charge against the Obama administration in the name of religious freedom.

At the same time, his papacy has been marked by a series of gaffes and scandals, during which he has at times appeared somewhat out-of-touch and ineffectual: scarcely characteristics one would expect of a man once dubbed "God's Rottweiller". There was the Regensburg speech of 2006, when his comments about Islam (actually, a quotation from a fifteenth century Byzantine emperor) sparked off riots in the Middle East. There was the matter of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier belonging to the breakaway Society of St Pius X, who was un-excommunicated just as he appeared on Swedish television claiming that "there were no gas chambers". There was the "Vatileaks" scandal last year, which culminated in the arrest and conviction of the Pope's butler for giving documents to a journalist.

Above all, of course, there was the continuing scandal of child abuse by clergy. Not only has the Vatican been slow to respond to shocking revelations in several countries, but the pope's own role as a bishop in Germany and as head of the CDF, charged with investigating paedophile priests, has repeatedly been called into question. During his visit to the UK in 2010 there was a slightly theatrical campaign led by Geoffrey Robertson QC, supported by Peter Tatchell and Richard Dawkins, to have him arrested. In recent years, formal apologies and meetings with carefully selected abuse victims have become a regular, almost ritual, feature of papal visits. But Benedict XVI has been unable to shake off the impression of a church too concerned with its own procedures and sense of its own sanctity to fully acknowledge its responsibility.

Unlike most popes, this one will be able to read (in a sense) his own obituaries; and they are likely to highlight these very themes. A pope is supposed to act as a focus of unity for Roman Catholics. Benedict XVI has been a rather divisive figure, inspiring passionate (and articulate) devotion, especially among grassroots traditionalist Catholics but ambivalence at best among Vatican bureaucrats as well as liberal clergy and theologians in Western countries. To outsiders, he has made an easy target, almost a caricature of a religious reactionary. Protests as well as prayers have accompanied him on his many overseas tours. But then he has never been someone to regard being popular as part of his job description.

History may well be kinder. Joseph Ratzinger is a serious thinker and a genuine intellectual – and, unlike many intellectuals, one who always expresses himself with perfect clarity. His encyclical Caritas in Veritate, for example, offers a far more profound and radical critique of the global economy than anything you'll get from most modern politicians. His three-volume biography of Jesus would be an important work of scholarship even if it had not been written by a serving pope. The Catholic Church continues to grow globally, though not in its traditional European heartland. His reign has been much more than the stop-gap many expected when he was elected at the advanced age of seventy-eight.

But he has never looked comfortable in the role to which God, or at any rate his fellow cardinals, called him. The other week, in a message marking World Communications Day, Benedict complained that "at times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner." He might have been talking about himself. Perhaps he was.

Pope Benedict XVI "never looked comfortable in the role to which God, or at any rate his fellow cardinals, called him". Photograph: Getty Images
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For the Ukip press officer I slept with, the European Union was Daddy

My Ukip lover just wanted to kick against authority. I do not know how he would have coped with the reality of Brexit.

I was a journalist for a progressive newspaper.

He was the press officer for the UK Independence Party.

He was smoking a cigarette on the pavement outside the Ukip conference in Bristol.

I sat beside him. It was a scene from a terrible film. 

He wore a tweed Sherlock Holmes coat. The general impression was of a seedy-posh bat who had learned to talk like Shere Khan. He was a construct: a press officer so ridiculous that, by comparison, Ukip supporters seemed almost normal. He could have impersonated the Queen Mother, or a morris dancer, or a British bulldog. It was all bravado and I loved him for that.

He slept in my hotel room, and the next day we held hands in the public gallery while people wearing Union Jack badges ranted about the pound. This was before I learned not to choose men with my neurosis alone. If I was literally embedded in Ukip, I was oblivious, and I was no kinder to the party in print than I would have been had I not slept with its bat-like press officer. How could I be? On the last day of the conference, a young, black, female supporter was introduced to the audience with the words – after a white male had rubbed the skin on her hand – “It doesn’t come off.” Another announcement was: “The Ukip Mondeo is about to be towed away.” I didn’t take these people seriously. He laughed at me for that.

After conference, I moved into his seedy-posh 18th-century house in Totnes, which is the counterculture capital of Devon. It was filled with crystal healers and water diviners. I suspect now that his dedication to Ukip was part of his desire to thwart authority, although this may be my denial about lusting after a Brexiteer who dressed like Sherlock Holmes. But I prefer to believe that, for him, the European Union was Daddy, and this compulsion leaked into his work for Ukip – the nearest form of authority and the smaller Daddy.

He used to telephone someone called Roger from in front of a computer with a screen saver of two naked women kissing, lying about what he had done to promote Ukip. He also told me, a journalist, disgusting stories about Nigel Farage that I cannot publish because they are libellous.

When I complained about the pornographic screen saver and said it was damaging to his small son, he apologised with damp eyes and replaced it with a photo of a topless woman with her hand down her pants.

It was sex, not politics, that broke us. I arrived on Christmas Eve to find a photograph of a woman lying on our bed, on sheets I had bought for him. That was my Christmas present. He died last year and I do not know how he would have coped with the reality of Brexit, of Daddy dying, too – for what would be left to desire?

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era