Assessing Benedict XVI: Resources for covering the pope

The third volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s study of the historical Jesus was published in November 2012 and became a best-seller like the pontiff’s previous works. It also served as a reminder of what a prolific writer Benedict has been and how his pontificate shaped the Catholic Church until his sudden resignation on February 28, 2013.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the Chair of St. Peter in April 2005, he was 78 years old and said that he did not expect to have a long papacy. His predecessor, John Paul II, was elected at the age of 58 and reigned for 26 years.

A theologian and scholar by training – read his official biography at the Vatican’s website – Benedict wrote extensively even as he governed the Church. Vatican experts say his body of writings, speeches and homilies may be as significant to understanding his pontificate as John Paul’s travels and public outreach were to assessing his reign.

The experts also note, however, that Benedict traveled widely, and he appointed many of the bishops now serving in dioceses around the world, as well as most of the cardinals who will vote on a successor in a conclave.

This edition of ReligionLink provides background, resources and contact information for experts for reporters taking stock of the papacy of Benedict XVI.


Why it matters

As the spiritual leader of more than 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, and more than 60 million in the United States, the pope can have enormous influence on the religious, ethical and political choices of a large percentage of the population. His reign is watched with particular interest in America, where scandals have left the Catholic Church — the nation’s largest denomination — in turmoil. Moreover, the pope is considered an important global statesman who regularly receives other world leaders. He also makes his views known through his delegates to the United Nations, where the Holy See has a high-profile diplomatic mission.

Significant events and themes

Major writings: Benedict has written three encyclicals, which are the most authoritative documents a pope can issue. The Vatican website also has all of his apostolic letters and exhortations, as well as his speeches, sermons and other addresses organized by the year they were given. In addition, Benedict has written two popular books about the historical Jesus that reflect many of his major concerns about belief in Christ in the modern world. The first book, Jesus of Nazareth, about Jesus’ ministry, was published in 2007; Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week was published in 2011. A third book, on the infancy narratives, is expected to be published by Christmas 2012. One of his U.S.-based publishers, Ignatius Press, will publish this newest book. Ignatius has a complete list of their books by the pope. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing also publishes works by Benedict. A full list is here.

The Second Vatican Council: Benedict’s papacy is coinciding with 50th anniversary celebrations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), regarded as the most significant event for the church in the 20th century. The council, often called Vatican II, paved the way for numerous reforms that were hailed by liberals. But they also sparked a reaction by conservatives. The battle for the legacy of Vatican II, and over how much it changed the church, or not, is a key template for viewing Catholicism in the age of Benedict XVI. The pope himself is seen as an ally of the conservatives, though he was considered a progressive reformer during the council, which he attended. Benedict set out his views on interpreting Vatican II in a December 2005 address to the Roman Curia.

Miscommunications: The so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which a papal aide, a “butler” by the name of Paolo Gabriele, allegedly passed along reams of internal Vatican memos to the press, generated enormous coverage in 2012. It also contributed to a perception that the Vatican under Benedict has been mismanaged and has been a hotbed of bureaucratic infighting. Actions were taken in 2012 to improve the Vatican’s communications structure in an effort to coordinate media strategy and better publicize papal initiatives.

Missteps: Other perceived missteps include the pope’s address in Regensburg in Germany in 2006 that included a passage about Islam that infuriated Muslims; the rehabilitation of several right-wing bishops from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X; the creation of an “ordinariate,” or special Anglican province, to create a haven for Anglicans upset with their church’s stands on the role of women and gays; and the pope’s remarks about condom use as he traveled to Africa in 2009.

Reconciliation with traditionalists: A priority for Benedict has been trying to heal the schism with the traditionalists who largely reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and want to return to old rites like the Mass in Latin and in the Tridentine format. These traditionalists are concentrated in a breakaway group called the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX. In January 2009 the pope rescinded the excommunications of four SSPX bishops despite their history of anti-Semitic statements and associations. One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, was known for minimizing the Holocaust. Still, efforts to bring the SSPX back in communion with Rome seemed to founder in 2012.

Changes to the Mass: In July 2007 Benedict decreed that the old Latin Mass, which had largely been replaced by a new rite in the vernacular, could be celebrated anywhere in the world. The old Mass is often known as the Tridentine rite, after the 16th-century Council of Trent. The move was part of the effort to reconcile with the SSPX, but it was also a longtime priority for Benedict. He followed up that move by promulgating a translation of the new, post-Vatican II rite that was aimed at reflecting more closely the original Latin texts. The new translations sparked widespread criticism, in the United States in particular. Benedict’s penchant for using centuries-old vestments is also a notable aspect of his approach to the liturgy.

Relations with Judaism: The reintroduction of the old Latin Mass also upset many in the Jewish community, who worried that its language signaled a retreat from the new relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that grew out of Vatican II. The tone of Benedict’s addresses to Jewish groups, particularly early in his papacy, also dismayed some in the Jewish community.

Clergy sexual abuse scandal: Early in his papacy, Benedict came under scrutiny over questions about his own record when he was head of the Archdiocese of Munich in the 1970s, and for questions about his approach to abuse cases while he was a top Vatican official in the 1990s. As pope, Benedict was viewed as taking a more aggressive stand against abusers than did his predecessor. Critics said Benedict still did not go far enough. In the United States, the 2012 convictions of a high-ranking church official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Bishop Robert Finn in Missouri for covering up for abusers raised further questions about the hierarchy’s commitment to accountability.

Investigation of American nuns: The announcement in April 2012 that Benedict was launching an overhaul of a leading group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, touched off a long-running controversy that seemed to pit the male leadership in Rome against the sisters, who remain very popular with the public. The LCWR rejected the Vatican’s claims that the nuns were dissenting from church teaching or spending too much time on social justice issues. The furor clouded prospects for the investigation. An earlier Vatican-led “visitation” of all communities of women religious in the U.S. was toned down after adverse publicity over the move.

Reining in dissent: The Vatican was also perceived to be targeting women when it sharply criticized the works of a well-known nun and theologian, Margaret Farley, in June 2012. A year earlier, the U.S. bishops had criticized the theological works of another theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson. But under Benedict, the hierarchy was continuing a policy of critiquing and sometimes silencing theologians whose works it claimed went against orthodox church teaching. In 2007, Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino was criticized by the Vatican, and the Rev. Peter Phan of Georgetown was also put under scrutiny. In 2009, Jesuit theologian Roger Haight was disciplined for his writings.

Restocking the hierarchy: As of September 2012, it was estimated that Benedict had appointed about 60 percent of all U.S. bishops, and he had named most of the leaders of the pre-eminent dioceses, such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Benedict had also named 84 cardinals, a majority of the voting-age members of the College of Cardinals.

International travels: Benedict made two dozen trips outside of Italy, despite his age and increasing concern about his stamina and an arthritic condition in his legs that causes him pain. See a list of all his trips at the Vatican website.

Books and biographies

  • My Brother the Pope is a 2012 memoir by the pope’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, that provides many personal insights into Joseph Ratzinger.
  • Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times is a 2010 book-length interview with Benedict that sheds light on his views on a range of topics.
  • The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church, by John L. Allen Jr.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger is a reissue of a 2000 biography of Ratzinger by Allen, subtitled The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. Allen later said he thought that book was too harsh on Ratzinger.
  • God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, by George Weigel.
  • The Making of the Pope 2005, by the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley. The well-known priest-sociologist-novelist updated his 1978 classic for the last conclave.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age, by the Rev. D. Vincent Twomey, a longtime friend of the pope’s who at one time was a doctoral student under him.
  • A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future, by Robert Blair Kaiser. Kaiser is a former priest and author of several books on the Catholic Church.
  • Holy Father: Pope Benedict XVI: Pontiff for a New Era, by Greg Tobin, an author and spokesman for the president of Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: Successor to Peter, by the Rev. Michael Collins, an Irish priest teaching in Rome.
  • We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, by Matthew E. Bunson, an expert on the church and author of numerous books on Catholicism.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: A Personal Portrait, by Heinz-Joachim Fischer. Fischer, Rome correspondent for a leading German newspaper, focuses on Benedict’s career as a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has known Ratzinger since 1976.
  • The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, by the Rev. Aidan Nichols. This is an update of a book on Ratzinger’s theology written in the 1980s by Nichols, an English Dominican.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: His Life and Mission, by Stephen Mansfield. Mansfield is a Protestant and author of a spiritual biography of President Bush.
  • Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger, by Michael S. Rose, a trenchant conservative whose other books have excoriated modern church architecture and the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood.
  • The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved, by Matthew Fox. Fox is a former Dominican priest and theologian who was silenced by the Vatican in 1988 for his writings. Fox is now an Episcopal priest.

Other resources

National sources

  • Helen M. Alvaré

    Helen M. Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia. Alvaré chaired the commission investigating clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was an adviser to Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, as well as an ABC News consultant. Her scholarship regularly addresses current controversies about marriage, parenting and the new reproductive technologies.

  • Christopher Bellitto

    Christopher Bellitto is chair of the history department at Kean University in New Jersey, where he has taught a course on the papacy. He has also written many articles on Catholicism and is a regular television commentator on Vatican stories.

  • Gregory R. Erlandson

    Gregory R. Erlandson is president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, which is based in Indiana and produced a number of Pope Benedict XVI’s works. Erlandson is co-author of the 2010 book Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal. He also worked in Rome covering the Vatican for Catholic News Service.

  • John T. Ford

    The Rev. John T. Ford is a professor at the school of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.. He has often used Pope Benedict XVI’s books as texts in his courses on Christianity.

  • Chester L. Gillis

    Chester L. Gillis is dean of Georgetown College, a professor in the department of theology and director of the Program on the Church and Interreligious Dialogue in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He is an expert in Catholocism and the editor of The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Their Influence.

  • Mary Ann Glendon

    Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School and was a vocal advocate of  Pope John Paul II’s views on women, abortion, sexuality and related issues. In 2004 the pope appointed her as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, at that time the highest Vatican post ever held by a woman. From 2008 to 2009 she was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

  • Jeannine Gramick

    Sister Jeannine Gramick was ordered to stop ministering to homosexuals by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1999. She has defied Vatican orders to cease her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics. Contact her through the organization she co-founded, New Ways Ministry, in Mount Rainier, Md.

  • Robert P. Imbelli

    The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli is an associate professor emeritus of theology at Boston College and has written and commented widely on the theology and policies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Joseph A. Komonchak

    The Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak holds the John and Gertrude Hubbard Chair in Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Komonchak has written frequently about Pope Benedict XVI’s thought and theology, and his June 3, 2005, article, “The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision,” in Commonweal magazine was recognized for its insight.

  • Rocco Palmo

    Rocco Palmo runs the blog Whispers in the Loggia, one of the most popular sites in the Catholic blogosphere. He is a frequently quoted expert on Vatican developments and was formerly a Philadelphia-based U.S. correspondent for The Tablet of London.

  • J. Peter Pham

    J. Peter Pham is former director of the William R. Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia. He is also a former Vatican diplomat who worked under John Paul II and is author of Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. Currently, he is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. Pham is a frequent commentator on papal politics and processes.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is an orthodox-minded Catholic theologian and distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005) and Witness to Hope (1999), which is essentially the authorized biography of Pope John Paul’s papacy. Weigel also wrote The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II : The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010).

International sources

  • John L. Allen Jr.

    John L. Allen Jr. is editor of Crux, a website specializing in coverage of the Catholic Church. He previously was the longtime Rome correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. Allen is considered a top Vaticanologist and a leading English-language expert and commentator on the papacy.

  • Joseph Fessio

    The Rev. Joseph Fessio is a close friend and former theology student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Fessio is widely considered one of the most influential conservative voices in the American church, and he is an outspoken opponent of allowing gay men into the priesthood. Fessio is the editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, which was the English-language publisher for Benedict’s books. Fessio spends much of his time in Naples, Fla. Contact through Rose Trabbic, media representative for Ignatius Press.

  • Robert Mickens

    Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief at Global Pulse, a Catholic magazine. He has been the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly published in London. He is based in Rome.

  • The Vatican

    The official website of the Holy See.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College who has written about genetics from a Christian perspective. Her books include Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice and Change and Bioethics and the Common Good.

  • Nancy Dallavalle

    Nancy Dallavalle is an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., where she teaches a course on the papacy. She is an expert on popes and the papacy, the pope as a world leader and media treatment of the pope.

  • John S. Grabowski

    John S. Grabowski is an associate professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He also has an expertise in women’s issues. He and his wife were appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Family by Pope Benedict XVI in the fall of 2009.

  • Thomas Groome

    Thomas Groome is a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, where he chairs the department of religious education and pastoral ministry. His primary area of interest is the history, theory and practice of religious education. He wrote Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent and is the primary author of various religion textbook series from W.H. Sadlier, most recently the Coming to Faith series. He also wrote What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life. He delivered a paper, “The Future of Ministry in the Catholic Church: Our Best Hopes,” at a June 2005 conference on the Roman Catholic priesthood at the college.

  • Alice Laffey

    Alice Laffey is an associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. She has written a history of papal statements and the evolution of papal teaching, and she can address issues regarding women and gender.

  • Paul Lakeland

    Paul Lakeland holds the Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., Chair in Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. His areas of expertise include the role of the laity in the church and recentralization of authority under recent popes.

  • Stephen D. Miles

    Stephen D. Miles is associate professor of theology at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. His teaching and research interests include the Catholic Church and the pope.

  • Stephen Pope

    Stephen Pope is a professor of theology at Boston College and a frequent commentator on church affairs and the papacy. He is author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love and writes about different forms of love in Christian thought, Christian ethics, justice, and charity, and evolutionary theory.

  • Christopher Ruddy

    Christopher Ruddy is an associate professor of historical and systematic theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He wrote about the theology of Pope Benedict in a June 3, 2005, Commonweal magazine article titled “No Restorationist.”

  • Mathew N. Schmalz

    Mathew N. Schmalz is a professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He specializes in global Catholicism, the papacy and Catholicism/culture issues in the U.S. His article “Scientology and Catholicism Do Mix: A Note on Teaching New Religions in a Catholic Classroom” appeared in the January 2006 edition of the journal Teaching Theology & Religion. He wrote a 2018 piece titled “Can you be Christian and support the death penalty?”

  • Greg Tobin

    Greg Tobin is senior adviser for communications at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and author of Holy Father: Pope Benedict XVI: Pontiff for a New Era.

  • Robert Wister

    The Rev. Robert Wister is a leading expert on the history of the papacy. He is a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He earned a doctorate in church history at the Gregorian University in Rome.

  • Thomas Worcester

    The Rev. Thomas Worcester is a history professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he teaches a course on the papacy. He is co-editor of The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor (2010).

In the South

  • Charles E. Curran

    Charles E. Curran is the Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in moral theology, social ethics and the role of the church as a moral and political actor in society. He is a liberal theologian who was dismissed from Catholic University of America for his teachings on human sexuality after an extended struggle, which included meetings with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Curran can also comment on the politics of the papacy.

  • Gerald P. Fogarty

    The Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty is a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia and an expert on the Vatican. He is the author of several books on Catholicism and the papacy. His essay “The Papacy: From Low Regard to High Esteem” is part of a 2000 collection from Liturgical Press titled The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century.

  • William F. Maestri

    The Rev. William F. Maestri is a theologian and spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans with a specialty in bioethics. He can talk about Pope John Paul II’s philosophical defense of human dignity in all contexts — medical, economic, etc.

In the Midwest

  • Steven M. Avella

    The Rev. Steven M. Avella is associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee and an expert on American Catholic history and the history of the American West.

  • Peter J. Bernardi

    The Rev. Peter J. Bernardi is an associate professor of religious studies at Loyola University in Chicago. He can talk about the papacy in the contemporary world. He contributed an essay to the collection in Catholicism Contending With Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context.

  • Dennis Doyle

    Dennis Doyle is a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and a frequent commentator and author on Catholic issues and the papacy.

    Contact: 937-229-4219.
  • Michael A. Fahey

    The Rev. Michael A. Fahey is professor emeritus of theological studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is an expert on the history and office of the papacy, and papal elections.

  • Abie Ingber

    Rabbi Abie Ingber is executive director at the Center of Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He can discuss the pope as a world leader in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

  • Ulrich Lehner

    Ulrich Lehner is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He knows Pope Benedict XVI personally and studied in his department at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

In the West

  • James Eblen

    The Rev. James Eblen is a professor emeritus in Seattle University’s school of theology and ministry who can speak about the papacy.

  • Charles Hilken

    Brother Charles Hilken is a history professor at St. Mary’s College of California. Papal elections and the history of the papacy are among his areas of expertise.

  • Patrick Howell

    The Rev. Patrick Howell is vice president for mission and ministry at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He co-edited the book Empowering Authority: The Charisms of Episcopacy and Primacy in the Church Today. He has frequently written about Pope Benedict XVI for the Seattle Times.

  • Thomas P. Rausch

    The Rev. Thomas P. Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Catholic priest, Rausch is the author of Authority and Leadership in the Church: Past Directions and Future Possibilities.

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