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Pope Benedict XVI: a paradoxical pontiff

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

Pope Benedict XVI at the Colosseum during the Way Of The Cross procession
Pope Benedict XVI "never looked comfortable in the role to which God, or at any rate his fellow cardinals, called him". Photograph: Getty Images

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.