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American Catholics Divided On Pope Benedict's Legacy


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

American Catholics are reacting today to the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The abrupt announcement from Rome this morning caught people unaware. After all, it's been nearly 600 years since the last pope stepped down. We'll have more on that resignation in a moment, but first, reaction today from American Catholics. As NPR's John Burnett reports, some say they're unsure of Pope Benedict's legacy, especially as he succeeded one of the most notable pontiffs in modern history.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Pope Benedict came to the United States five years ago to rally American Catholics in public appearances at places such as Yankee Stadium.


BURNETT: Unlike his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who electrified Catholics in his visits to 129 countries, the scholarly Pope Benedict may have made his greatest impact in his writings. In addition to papal encyclicals, he found time to author three scholarly but popular books on the Gospel passages of Jesus.

Lawrence Cunningham, emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame University, points out that Benedict was a symbol of continuity. He had no intentions of shaking up the institution.

DR. LAWRENCE CUNNINGHAM: I don't think that he saw himself as one who would be an innovator. So I think that history is going to look back on his relatively brief papacy as one of trying to steady the church after the tumultuous, long papacy of John Paul II.

BURNETT: For the faithful, comparisons of Benedict to his immediate predecessor are unavoidable and perhaps unfair. Remembering how John Paul remained pontiff even as his symptoms of Parkinson's worsened, Nora Bailey(ph) had this to say. She was leading Mass at St. Monica's Catholic Church in Santa Monica, California.

NORA BAILEY: I remember Pope John Paul. He wouldn't give up.

BURNETT: One Catholic University official suggested that Benedict is retiring now precisely so he will not waste away in office as John Paul did, with the world watching. Chris Hardin(ph), a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, thinks Benedict's accomplishments will be overshadowed.

CHRIS HARDIN: Overall, I wasn't too impressed. I think that he had extremely large shoes to fill when Pope John II died, and I really, really think that a lot of the things he did were trying to make his mark in history.

BURNETT: From within the church, early assessments are more generous. Sister Gill Goulding, a theology professor at Regis College, interviewed today at Boston College, was asked her first reaction to news of the retiring pope.

SISTER GILL GOULDING: I think that it shows his characteristics of true humility, courage and holiness. I think he's been a great pope. I think it's sad, but I think, in a sense, it moves us forward. The Holy Spirit will take it on to the next round. So I have great faith in what is to come too.

BURNETT: Benedict was dogged by the clergy sex abuse scandals that grew under his tenure. Victims of sexual misconduct in the church will remain critical of Benedict for not doing more to punish child-molesting clerics and cooperate with law enforcement. Father Jim Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America Magazine.

FATHER JAMES MARTIN: There are people, however, in the United States who think that he didn't act, you know, as strongly as he could have. But I would say that Benedict, you know, for a man his age, tried to do his best to combat what he saw as a real scandal in the church.

BURNETT: Most of the Catholic laity and scholars interviewed for this report agree that the College of Cardinals must and will select a far younger and more vigorous pope. On the flip side, said one commentator, we'll have him for two to three decades. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.