It’s the equivalent of an American presidential term since Joseph Ratzinger became Pope. But if he had to run for re-election, would he get the popular vote? David Williamson runs the rule over the first four years of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign
FOUR years have passed since Pope Benedict XVI was inaugurated and he remains as enigmatic a figure as when he first appeared on the papal balcony and blessed an audience of thousands.
If Popes had to fight elections like US presidential candidates, he would have just come off the campaign trail with a fresh mandate and manifesto.
But pontiffs are elected in secret and the job is for life.
However, a sense of fragility surrounds the papacy. The 82-year-old is rarely out of the headlines, but often because of high-profile PR disasters.
Four years ago he announced he wanted his leadership to be a time of “reconciliation and harmony”.
However, many Muslims were outraged in 2006 when he quoted from a 1391 text which described Islam’s contribution to the world as “evil and inhuman”.
This year he moved to end the excommunication of a group of bishops, one of whom it transpired was a Holocaust denier.
Comparisons with his predecessor John Paul II can seem stark and tragic. The Polish Pope harnessed the power of the photo-op to inspire the imaginations of millions, especially those who lived under Communism.
In contrast, Pope Benedict is an acclaimed writer and a premier league theologian with grand ambitions who has struggled to adapt to the scrutiny of rolling news – as shown recently in the confusion surrounding comments on the role of condoms in fighting Aids in Africa.
To some, recent fiascos are symptomatic of a hopelessly unreformed Vatican.
His former theological colleague, Hans Küng, recently said: “The Pope doesn’t even have a cabinet or government to advise him. The Pope decides and does everything himself, on his own.
“That’s no way to govern in the 21st century...We’re stuck in an absolutist system comparable to the court of Louis IV.”
Nevertheless, Mark Greaves, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, believes that if Pope Benedict had to stand for election the majority of the world’s Catholics would return him to the Vatican.
He said: “I think Catholics around the world would re-vote him in because even though there have been a few PR disasters, among Catholics he’s ge nerally hugely admired and loved... He’s a beautiful writer [and] he’s possibly the most intellectual and clever Pope there has been for a long time.”
Admitting that the Vatican’s communications were in urgent need of overhaul, he said: “Their press office is pretty terrible, really.”
But he said the perception of a church in Britain whose faithful are drifting away is not correct.
He said: “I think younger Catholics are generally seen as more committed... They are more orthodox and more likely to follow the church’s teaching than older Catholics.”
Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh agrees that the Pope is a “brilliant” writer let down by a Vatican civil service which has resisted the appointment of a communication maestro on a par with John Paul II’s Joaquín Navarro- Valls.
However, Pope Benedict may be one of the few people in the world who can benefit from the credit crunch.
In the coming weeks he is expected to publish a major encyclical on global social challenges.
Mr Ivereigh said: “He has a great opportunity here in the midst of the greatest financial crisis and crisis of institutions since the 1930s. He has an opportunity to analyse that and give his diagnosis and prescription.
“If he messes that up I don’t think he’s got a second chance.”
An easy comparison can be drawn between Pope Benedict and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, another A-list theologian turned church leader who is regularly caught in media firestorms.
But while disputes over homosexuality have pushed the Anglican Communion to the brink of schism, the long-running Catholic controversies over priestly celibacy and the use of birth control within marriage rumble beneath the surface.
Monsignor Robert Reardon, of the Archdiocese of Cardiff, said: “None of us has a crystal ball and we are not into the foretelling of the future, but they aren’t issues that are going to go away.”
Monsignor Reardon believes the Pope is quietly striving to “embed faith within reason”. He sees this as a way of ensuring “religion and faith do have a place in the centre of human activity” and fostering church unity by bringing “extremes to the centre.”
As a Pope in the age of Google, Benedict XVI faces challenges his predecessors never imagined but opportunities of which they could not have dreamed. If his encyclical addresses the hopes and fears of millions in a unique moral voice, then the world may take notice of this labour of love.