Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, just surprised the world by announcing his resignation due to advanced age, 85, after eight years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415, around 600 years ago. Since papal appointment is from election until death, papal resignation is a very uncommon event. Only five popes have resigned in history, according to official records.
Regardless of our religious preference, Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation gives us an opportunity for reflection on his leadership legacy. From a leadership perspective, several questions come to our minds: How did he serve his followers? How did he impact the Catholic Church and the world? How did he change history? What was his legacy?
According to some observers, Benedict will be remembered as perhaps the most “conservative” pope since the 1950s—a leader who prioritized theological principle over progressive preferences. Some people, however, would question the term “conservative,” since in Catholicism there is no right or left but only orthodoxy and error.
In short, based on general comments from the media, we may summarize his leadership legacy in different areas as follows:
Religious Legacy. His religious heritage includes strong theology, open cooperation with evangelicals, promoting Catholic doctrine and teachings by encouraging the “new evangelism” of the church, and an openness to dialogue with other religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, seeking to improve relations with them throughout his pontificate.
Social issues. He had a hardline conservative stance on social issues, including the fact that he did not change the church position on homosexuality. His third encyclical, Charity in Truth, sets out the Pope's position on the case for worldwide redistribution of wealth in considerable detail and goes on to discuss the environment, migration, terrorism, sexual tourism, bioethics, energy and population issues.
Women’s rights. He did not welcome female priests, did not support the use of contraceptives, did not pause the church's campaign against abortion. Some would consider his papacy as not female-friendly, although he is admired and loved by most women in the Catholic Church.
International relations. Besides occasionally commenting on current events, such as condemning violence in Nigeria and Syria, Pope Benedict has also promoted various UN events, such as World Refugee Day, on which he offered special prayers for refugees and called for the international community to do more to secure refugees' human rights.
Social media. The first pope ever to use Twitter. He tweets under the handle @Pontifex, which means “bridge builder” in Latin (https://twitter.com/Pontifex).
Controversy. Despite his personal effort to listen to the victims of sexual abuse in the Church, the most troublesome part of his leadership was the priest abuse scandal and the way he dealt with the revelation of horrible abuse of young boys and girls within the Church, both before and during his papacy. In fact, the perception from the wider world was of a church led by a man who never fully grasped how much damage had been done by the priests and those who covered up their actions.
Now the world speculates about who the next pope will be. Several names have been suggested as candidates, including Angelo Cardinal Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, Italy; Marc Cardinal Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec, Canada; Peter Cardinal Turkson, from Ghana, who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who is a prestigious cardinal in New York. Anyway, in March, the world will know the new Catholic leader and the new trend in the Church.