A thin Pope
The previous Benedict, XV (1914-1922), a civil lawyer, is remembered mostly for his strident but failed opposition to World War I, and his strident and successful opposition to socialism.
Benedict XIV (1740-1758) was, like Ratzinger, a theologian and head of the Inquisition for many decades before becoming pope. Holding multiple bishoprics, Benedict XIV nonetheless spent most of his time in Rome, climbing the clerical ladder through determined service. Once pope, Benedict XIV faced off against the burgeoning Enlightenment, which was swiftly weaning Europe from the Church's authority.
He is remembered for escalating the long stand-off against Modernism, a battle which culminated in the reign of the 19th-century goliath, Pius IX (beatified by John Paul II). Benedict XIV's condemnations of Voltaire were accompanied by his ruling that Jewish children baptized against their parents wishes should be kidnapped and raised by religious orders - a practice followed by Pius IX, incidentally, to much criticism.
As Benedicts X through XIII, all short-term- or even anti-popes, have been judged fairly irrelevant historically, one can safely assume that Ratzinger intends to model his rule on either XIV or XV.
Ineffectual anti-war protestor? Or anti-modern inquisitor?
Unfortunately, there's no reason even to wonder. His was the conservative power behind the throne for three decades. There are stories that he was a Hitler Youth as a child, and CNN describes him as
the driving force behind crackdowns on liberation theology, religious pluralism, challenges to traditional moral teachings on issues such as homosexuality, and dissent on such issues as women's ordination.
Since one of the most noble parts of John Paul II's reign was his consistent efforts to foster a sense of common purpose between all people of the Book – Jew, Muslim, Orthodox and Protestant – this is a serious step back. I'm not well-informed on liberation theology, but I like what I've heard, and I'd think that indigenous religious movements ought to be allowed to flourish, with gentle tending from above if need be. The way that movement was systematically shattered is an affront to the poverty-stricken people of South America, people who looked to the church and found help, but then saw their helpers cut off at the knees. I don't know what the argument is against allowing a larger role for women is, but I know what the argument for it is.
I also know that a Church which preaches a gospel of love has no right to attack some congregants on the basis of their sexuality, any more than they deserve to be denigrated because of race, sex or age.
What I worry about most is the Church's position on condoms. Condoms save lives in AIDS ravaged areas. The African church has had trouble keeping their priests celibate, many priests are apparently married at least once. How can Rome expect to sell abstinence as the only answer when the very people preaching are not following those rules? How can the Church, which has done so much good work to help the hungry and war-ravaged in Africa, turn its back on the only serious solution to a crisis which is leaving more orphans than anything else in Africa?
The only hope we can cling to is that rumors are already spreading that Benedict XVI was chosen as an "interim appointment," a thin pope in the oft-repeated Italian saying ("Always follow a fat pope with a thin pope"). The Cardinals will have to begin a serious discussion about where they see the Church going in the 20 years after Ratzinger leaves office. But they better watch out, their boss may still think of himself as the Chief Inquisitor.