The death of Pope Benedict XVI Saturday sent a broad wave of mourning through the American church.
But it held special meaning for the conservative wing of American Catholicism: His death represented the loss of their unofficial figurehead, a shadow presence whose influence they followed even after he resigned in 2013 and Pope Francis became the church’s global leader.
While he largely faded from public life since his unexpected retirement, the former pope — whose early reputation as a firebrand once earned him the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” — remained a hero to many theological conservatives, who viewed him as a standard-bearer for a kind of doctrinal commitment and rigor they saw lacking in the church under Francis.
In recent years, the conservative wing of American church leadership has been gaining power, and has clashed openly and often with the country’s second Catholic president, Joseph R. Biden, and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, over the issue of abortion.
Benedict’s promotion of Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, helped shape the character of church hierarchy in the United States at its highest levels. Parts of the American church, including the younger generation of priests, have long held Benedict “in an awe bordering on reverence,” said George Weigel, a conservative Catholic commentator and author of “To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II.”
Catholics make up about 20 percent of all U.S. adults. The church has grown increasingly polarized in the past few years, and the faction that has opposed Pope Francis’ agenda has strengthened.
At their annual meeting in November, U.S. bishops chose as their top leaders Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who was named by Benedict to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who was elevated to his role by Benedict. Both have prioritized an opposition to abortion and have taken conservative stances on an array of social issues.
Benedict’s theological writings and influence as Joseph Ratzinger, when he was Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man, made him one of the most dominant forces to shape the culture of the current American priesthood.
No one was more important in helping John Paul II turn the church to the right, said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.
“It continued to shift to the right more than I think he would have liked or envisioned,” Mr. Gibson said. “The orthodoxy he envisioned morphed into a kind of Tea Party Catholicism that may have been as strange to him as any liberal developments in the ’60s and ’70s.”
When Benedict visited the United States in 2008, he warned against the “subtle influence of secularism” that could lead Catholics to accept abortion, divorce and cohabitation outside of marriage.
He also acknowledged the “deep shame” caused by the sexual abuse scandal and said it was “sometimes very badly handled” by the church.
Benedict’s resignation, heralded by some as a move of humility, was also seen by his critics as fallout from the church’s mishandling of that crisis.
For many survivors of sexual abuse, his theological intellect could not compensate for his limited response to the global crisis, either when he led the church’s top doctrinal watchdog or as pope.
“Had he disciplined complicit bishops like he disciplined dissident theologians, a lot of cover-ups and crimes would have been stopped,” said David Clohessy, the former national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“He was brilliant but timid, causing thousands of children to be assaulted by refusing to act decisively to end decades of irresponsible church secrecy around child sex crimes,” he said.
In the United States, Benedict’s legacy is in the intellectual tradition and hierarchical appointments he leaves behind. His high-profile promotions include Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, formerly of Washington, and Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis.
As a young priest and theologian in the 1960s, Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council, where he was perceived as a relative liberal at a time of dramatic change to the church’s liturgy, rituals and approach to the secular world. He later became alarmed by what he perceived as a leftward theological drift in the church, though he said that his theological positions did not change.
“You might say this is the definitive drawing down of the curtain on Vatican II,” said Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, and the influential founder of the Catholic media organization Word on Fire.
The fact that Benedict’s post-papacy lasted almost a decade surprised many observers, Bishop Barron said, describing Benedict as a fundamentally introverted intellectual. “The way he lived the last 10 years was probably the way he wanted to live his life,” he said.
Benedict’s retirement, unprecedented in the modern era, was a bombshell that has softened with time. “For a lot of Catholics, he might be a pretty distant figure,” Bishop Barron said.
For others, the loss is that of an intellectual giant and beloved pastoral figure.
Helen Alvaré, an associate dean at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, has been studying Benedict’s work since the 1980s.
Just this week, she said, she was reading from “Truth and Tolerance,” a compilation of the former Joseph Ratzinger’s lectures on Catholic teachings in the context of contemporary global religion.
Benedict was “the continuity between Vatican II and today,” she said, describing him as an “encyclopedia” of church history.
“We feel like we’re losing a grandfather,” she said.