For nearly 25 years, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was the powerful head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Conservatives in the church have looked to the former pope as their standard bearer and some ultra-traditionalists even refused to acknowledge Francis as a legitimate pontiff.
They have criticised Francis for his more welcoming approach to members of the LGBTQ+ community and to Catholics who divorced and remarried outside the church, saying both were undermining traditional values.
Alberto Tonini, an historian at the University of Florence, told Al Jazeera that Benedict was more influential as a scholar and theologist, rather than a leader.
“He was not very comfortable speaking to a large audience or acting as a political leader. He was a thinker, a philosopher – and he maintained his (scholarly) activities during the eight years of his papacy,” Tonini said.
Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.
In his 2011 book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death.
However, as pope he also came under fire for a string of public relations controversies, and a perceived lack of charisma.
Most importantly, as an ever-growing number of victims spoke out about their abuse, mostly as children, at the hands of priests, he was criticised for his failure to act decisively to end church cover-ups.
Before his election as pope, Benedict led the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, giving him the ultimate responsibility to investigate abuse cases.
He became the first pontiff to apologise for the scandals that emerged around the world, expressing “deep remorse” and meeting with victims in person.
In 2010, he admitted that the church “did not act quickly or firmly enough to take the necessary action” on an issue that severely tarnished its image.
Tributes pour in
The leader and spiritual head of the Anglican church said Benedict “in his life and ministry … directed people to Christ”.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wrote on Twitter: “I join with Pope Francis and all the Catholic Church in mourning his death.”
“May he rest in Christ’s peace and rise in glory with all the Saints.”
In his life and ministry, Pope Benedict XVI directed people to Christ. I join with Pope Francis and all the Catholic Church in mourning his death. May he rest in Christ’s peace and rise in glory with all the Saints.