For this week's Common Good Forum, we asked John Gehring of Faith in Public Life, to reflect on this historic papacy of Benedict XVI and what his life and teachings did to promote the Catholic Social Tradition in the public sphere.

The stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has provoked a wave of analysis from cable news pundits, theologians and Catholics in the pews about what legacy this pontiff leaves behind after an eight-year tenure at the helm of the world’s largest church.

In terms of style and personality, Benedict could not have been more different from his predecessor. If John Paul II was the charismatic rock star pope – a former actor who relished his role on the world stage – Benedict is every bit the cerebral theologian most at home at his writing desk. While his papacy was less epic in scale, Pope Benedict leaves behind an important but frequently overlooked legacy on social justice issues. A pope largely viewed in the media as a staunch conservative for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion also trumpeted views to the left of most Democrats in Congress when it came to economic justice and the environment.

In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of global wealth. A defining theme of Benedict’s papacy – especially after the 2008 global financial crisis – was an uncompromising critique of economic systems that subjugate the human person to the demands of profit. In his World Day of Peace message just last month, he lamented “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Along with “terrorism” and “international crime,” the pope named unfettered markets as a threat to stability and peace. It’s an understatement to say you won’t hear that kind of talk from most U.S. politicians who rely on Wall Street largesse to finance campaigns. While free-market fundamentalists lobby for greater deregulation of markets and corporations, the Vatican’s justice and peace council during the Benedict era called for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” and a “world reserve fund” to support countries hard hit by the economic crisis. 

Benedict has also been called the “Green Pope” for defining environmental stewardship in stark moral terms and his frequent warnings about climate change. More than any of his predecessors, this pope has articulated a clear theology behind what he calls the “covenant between human beings and the environment.”  In 2011, the day before world leaders from 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa to chart out next steps to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, the pope used his daily noon blessing to urge the international community to “agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.” He told a Franciscan environmental group attending the Durban conference that “there is no good future for humanity or for the earth unless we educate everyone toward a style of life that is more responsible toward the created world,” according to Catholic News Service. Under Benedict’s tenure, several Vatican buildings were outfitted with solar panels and the Vatican has pledged to install enough renewable energy sources to provide 20 percent of its needs by 2020, a measure in line with a European Union proposal.

Historians will debate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI for centuries, and the next heir to St. Peter will leave his own distinctive mark. In the end, Benedict may be best remembered for his unexpected departure and the still unknown ways that seismic decision could reshape the modern papacy.

John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life in Washington.