But, as CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports, no one was more feared as a chief enforcer of Vatican orthodoxy.
"He has the most appalling reputation around the world as someone who has squashed theology, persecuted theologians - the chief of the thought police, the master of the inquisition," says Catholic journalist and feminist writer Margaret Hebblethwaite.
It was Ratzinger's job as head of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith - the old Office of the Inquisition - that led to him being labeled by some as "God's Rottweiler." He attacked dissent, banishing it from the Church's mainstream, sometimes banishing it from the Church altogether. But his uncompromising reputation, his backers say, is undeserved.
"He himself is absolutely not the iron-fisted enforcer, arch-conservative that he's depicted as being," says Father Richard Neuhaus of the Religious Public Policy Institute.
Yet in his last public pronouncement before his election, he laid down his gauntlet. The Church had to resist "the dictatorship of relativism," he said, which is Vatican code for "the Church must not compromise on its principles to be popular."
Everyone knew what he meant on the hot button issues: that he would not budge on contraception, celibacy and women priests.
Asked if his selection represent the consolidation, the ascendancy of the traditionalist, or the "right" in the Church, CBS News Consultant Father Mike Russo says: "That part of the church has been energized, this will increase that energy. It'll be interesting to see what the reaction to this will be."
As Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict had described homosexuality as "a moral evil." He said the Church's sex-abuse scandal was exaggerated by the media. During the U.S. presidential election said any pro-choice candidates on abortion should be denied communion -- and so denied any chance at salvation.
As a cardinal he took no prisoners. As pope, his unbending promotion of strict, orthodox doctrine now has the stamp of infallibility.