Profile: Pope Benedict

WHEN he was a mere Cardinal and a behind-the-scenes orchestrator in the Vatican, Joseph Ratzinger once told an interviewer: "I am like the cellist Rostropovich. I never read the critics." Four years into his reign, Pope Benedict XVI no longer has that luxury. These days, even the Supreme Pontiff has to be aware of his image.

The first German-born Pope in nearly 1,000 years has recently shown a most un-Teutonic inefficiency in communicating his messages. That's putting it mildly, for if the 81-year-old Bavarian was a mere Prime Minister, his very public gaffes would have seen his zuccheto – the white Papal skull-cap – hanging from a very shoogly peg.

As it is, the leader of the world's second largest religion – Islam became the biggest last year, according to L'Osservatore Romano, the Pope's own official publication – Benedict has had to endure what he himself called the "pain" of severe criticism from leading Catholics, as well as Muslims, Jews, health ministers and even the normally devoted Italian press.

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In the past few days, for instance, the Italian weekly magazine Gente has openly speculated that the cause of his recent gaffes was mental strain due to his lifelong bronchitis and the effect it has had on his heart. That is denied by the Vatican, of course, where the priestly civil service is allowing its press office to take the blame for some spectacular 'mis-spokes', as George W Bush might have put it.

Those who have followed the career of a man who has long been a professor and not a pastor are in no way surprised at this turn of events. Benedict is a true academic, a man who spent decades wrapped in the mysteries of theology and philosophy, and thus simply does not possess the life experience, political nous and charisma of his predecessor, the revered John Paul II.

In short order, Benedict recently insulted Muslims en masse by quoting an ancient critique of Islam that stated that it was "evil and inhuman". It wasn't just Muslims who were appalled at that statement.

He then failed to mention the Jews while visiting Auschwitz, and welcomed back to the church a formerly ex-communicated bishop, Richard Williamson, who had been embroiled in a Holocaust denial controversy.

Given his church's teachings on sexuality, the Pope was never likely to sign up to the United Nations declarations on homosexual rights, but that still earned him the opprobrium of gay, lesbian and human rights campaigners.

More criticism followed a Brazilian archbishop's decision to excommunicate a mother and four doctors who aborted the twin foetuses of a nine-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather. Senior figures in the Vatican took opposing sides on the issues, suggesting the Pope wasn't in charge of his stable.

Then came his long-awaited first pontifical trip to Africa last week, in which he was reported as saying that condoms were not the solution to the continent's grave Aids crisis and could possibly make the situation worse.

At a stroke he seemingly undermined the anti-Aids strategies of the World Health Organisation and numerous governments. His remarks led to the most savage denunciation of papal comments at government level, possibly for decades. Eric Chevalier, of the French foreign ministry, said there was "enormous worry about the consequences" of the Pope's words. On the frontline of the Aids battle in Cameroon, campaigner Alain Fogue perhaps best summed up the general view: "The people will not follow what the Pope is saying. He lives in heaven and we are on earth."

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That goes right to the heart of growing criticisms of the Pope and the impression that he closets himself too much within the Vatican's ivory towers and is increasingly out of touch with 21st-century reality. Initiatives such as ||WEBSTART||||WEBSTOP||, launched in January to raise the church's profile in cyberspace and among the world's youth, are dismissed as gimmicks. What Benedict needs to do, say critics, is to get out more into the real world.

On the other hand, his supporters argue that visits to Australia, America and Africa in the past year are a punishing enough schedule for an octogenarian – he goes to the Holy Land later this year and a possible trip to the UK, which may include time in Scotland, is being considered for next year.

As a German, it is the response to his actions in welcoming Bishop Williamson, an arch-conservative and veteran Holocaust denier, back into the Roman fold that have probably caused Benedict the most personal pain. That he subsequently apologised for any offence showed he knew he had got it wrong.

The Pope was born in 1927, in a Bavarian village, and his childhood was spent in the shadow of the Third Reich. He was obliged to join the Hitler Youth as a 14-year-old seminary student and saw prisoners from the Dachau camp and Hungarian Jews shipped to their deaths. In the Austrian Legion, he was "bullied" by fanatical ideologues and in 1945 he deserted. Six years later he was ordained and became a professor of fundamental theology at the age of just 30.

Although he preferred the academic life, he was made archbishop of Munich when he was 50 despite his previous lack of pastoral care. When the calling came from John Paul in 1981 for him to become the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's enforcer of orthodoxy with roots in the Holy Inquisition, it was a role he relished for more than two decades. Too enthusiastically, according to some liberal Catholics whom he disciplined and ex-communicated.

Unlike John Paul II, who was revered around the globe, Benedict is coming to be seen as horribly accident-prone and lacking in the popular touch that marked out Karol Wojtyla's quarter of a century in charge of the Holy See.

Even in the early days of Benedict's succession as leader of 1,000 million Catholics worldwide, few ever expected the new incumbent to simply continue where John Paul left off. "They are very different people," said one Scottish academic who has worked in the Vatican as an adviser. "John Paul was an actor in his youth and he carried those skills with him. He became almost celebrity aristocracy and a phenomenon in his own right.

Benedict's preferred medium of communication is through his writings. He is less comfortable when he has to make comments that can be openly reported and open to interpretation."

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Catholic belief is that Joseph Ratzinger is infallible and can't be gainsaid, but only when he makes a decree ex cathedra – from the chair or office of Pope – about a doctrine concerning faith and morals. His opinions on every other matter are very much open to question, however, and Benedict XVI may yet be seen as a very fallible Pope.

You've been Googled!

Pope Benedict XVI is better connected than any of his predecessors. He is the first pontiff in history to use a mobile phone. He also has an iPod engraved with his coat of arms and has an online fan club.

• The Pope is a passionate football fan who supports the crack Bundesliga squad, Bayern Munich. "I'd like the game of football to be a vehicle for the education of the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially among younger generations," he has said.

• Along with his native German, he speaks fluent Italian, French, English, Spanish and Latin. He can read ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew.

• The Bavarian loves beer. His favourite tipple is said to be a stein of ice-cold Franziskaner Weissbier.

• He has revived the Papal tradition of wearing red shoes, but shot down suggestions they were made by Prada, insisting instead that they were the work of his personal Vatican cobbler. His affronted spokesman issued the clarification: "The Pope does not wear Prada, but Christ."

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