Understanding Benedict XVI

Print edition : May 20, 2005

The elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the theologian and "trusted friend" of the late Pope John Paul II, as the new Pope does not necessarily mean continuity. The name taken by him gives scope for optimism about the future course of the church.

IT was his infamous track record as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, for nearly 25 years that made the German Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger the bete noire of liberals in the Catholic Church and earned him epithets bordering on abuse ("God's Rottweiler", "German Shepherd", Panzerkardinal). In that capacity, he clamped down on liberation theologians in Latin America, termed other religions and Churches "gravely deficient" in ensuring the "fullness of the means of salvation" to their followers, condemned homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil" and cautioned against the "lethal effects" of radical feminism - to list only a few of his highly controversial actions (Frontline, May 6). He was the "Grand Inquisitor", chief "heresy-hunter" and loyal lieutenant of the late John Paul II.

Pope Benedict XVI during his installation Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 24.-ANDREW MEDICHINI/AP

As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger may or may not prove his critics wrong. Yet his pontificate is not going to be a carbon copy of that of his predecessor. There will be "continuity" insofar as contentious and divisive issues are concerned - Benedict XVI is unlikely to amend the Church's teachings on women's ordination, homosexuality, clerical celibacy and so on. But it would have been the case, at least in the foreseeable future, with any other person as Pope. Moreover, the legacy of John Paul II will certainly have a significant bearing on this pontificate.

True, Pope John Paul II and his "trusted friend" Ratzinger had much in common. Although hailing from two distinct traditions of Catholicism - Polish and German - both shared a conservative Weltanschauung (worldview). Both felt the reforms triggered by the path-breaking Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a gathering of bishops from across the world convened by Pope John XXIII to renew and modernise the Catholic Church, had brought the Church to "imminent apostasy" (according to the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain). John Paul II and Ratzinger believed the Church ought not to conform to the rapidly changing standards of the world, but firmly adhere to the eternal verities of Catholic doctrine. Thus, the Church would stand out as a beacon of moral rectitude and faithfulness in an age of disbelief, indifference and amorality. It is, of course, debatable whether this counter-cultural stance should characterise the Church's mode of engagement with the modern world.

Both distrusted, in Benedict XVI's words, the "politicisation of faith" allegedly found in liberation theology, an innovative branch of theology that called on the Church to align with the struggles of the poor for "liberation" from exploitation and oppression.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, exchanges Christmas greetings with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on December 22, 2003.-AP

The major similarities end there. John Paul II was no great theologian; he had a more philosophical orientation. Benedict XVI, a distinguished theologian and a prolific writer, taught in the best theological faculties of Germany before becoming the Archbishop of Munich in 1977. John Paul II was, above all, a pastor and a man of the masses. Benedict XVI has little pastoral experience (about four years as Archbishop of Munich) and is more at home in a seminar hall or a library than among the faithful.

John Paul II was not interested in the intricate details of day-to-day Church governance. Usually he gave some general instructions and left the rest to the respective curial departments. This style of functioning left him free to concentrate on his innumerable pastoral engagements with the world and its concerns. It had its other side too. He was criticised for not doing enough to resolve one of the most-pressing crises the Church faced in its recent history: the sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States and some parts of Europe. By the time the Vatican realised the depth and breadth of the crisis, the Church had lost face, especially in the U.S. with an expose in The Boston Globe. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is the quintessential Vatican insider, known for a hands-on approach to administrative issues. He said: "[L]etting things drift is ... the worst kind of administration I can imagine" (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, An interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger by Peter Seewald; Ignatius Press, 1997; page 83).

Their visions for the world and the Church are a study in contrast. Addressing the United Nations in 1995, John Paul II said: "We shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit." The future Benedict XVI's views on this millennial vision were hardly inspiring: "Whether the vision is actually fulfilled is something we naturally have to leave entirely in God's hands. At the moment I do not yet see it approaching" (Salt of the Earth; page 238). While John Paul II spoke about the necessity of a "new evangelisation" to reinvigorate the Church, his Prefect of the CDF was not enthused. His observation is worth quoting in extenso: "Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good to the world - that let God in.... There are certainly no mass conversions to Christianity, no reversal of the historical paradigm, no about-face" (ibid., page 16). Christians will have to remain, as Benedict XVI said elsewhere, a "creative minority".

Ironically, Benedict XVI even played the role of the Holy Father's "loyal opposition". On many an occasion he was the lone voice of dissent in the Roman Curia (the Vatican's bureaucracy). When John Paul II summoned leaders of other religions to join him in a prayer for world peace at Assisi in Italy in 1986, Ratzinger decried the move saying it was tantamount to equating Christianity with other religions. "This cannot be the model," he said. He did not attend the gathering. In other words, even the Pope was guilty of "relativism", one of the many "evils" that Ratzinger fought vigorously as the Prefect of the CDF. He reaffirmed the uniqueness and necessity of the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ in attaining salvation in the CDF document Dominus Iesus (2000). Once the doctrinal points were made clear, he attended the 2002 Assisi meeting, the third and the last convened during John Paul II's reign.

Ratzinger was also critical of the "saint factory" (not his coinage), a sarcastic allusion to the many saints and blesseds created under John Paul II. The number of people canonised and beatified by the late Pope exceeded those done in over 1,000 years of Church history. For John Paul II they were the models of faith, deserving veneration. Ratzinger disagreed. In many cases, they were "persons who might perhaps say something to a certain group, but do not say much to the great multitude of believers". Instead, he proposed, "bringing to the attention of Christianity only those figures who, more than all others, make visible to us the holy Church, amid so many doubts about its holiness".

BAVARIA is a staunchly Catholic German province. In the 16th century, even as the Protestant Reformation was shaking the very foundation of the Church in Germany and winning many converts to its cause, it stood firm as a bastion of Catholicism. To this day Bavaria remains one of the most culturally traditional and politically conservative regions of the country. It was here that Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. And the roots of his piety lie in the rock-solid Catholic ethos of Bavaria. Above all, his piety is characterised by simplicity, depth and unwavering loyalty to the Church.

By the time he entered the seminary in the early 1940s, Germany was passing through one of its most tumultuous periods in history. The Second World War had begun and the Nazi regime had started deporting German Jews to concentration camps. Like many others of his age, Ratzinger served in the Hitler Youth, though reluctantly. As the War progressed, he was conscripted and he served in Bavaria and on the Austrian border. In 1945, when the War ended, he was taken a prisoner of war by the U.S. Army.

The post-War period saw Ratzinger - he was ordained in 1951 - emerging as a leading liberal voice in German-speaking Catholic theology. Together with the Swiss theologian, Hans Kng, and the German Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, the most important Catholic theologian and philosopher of religion since St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), he was a peritus (theological expert) to the German bishops at the Second Vatican Council. As peritus, he is said to have written a famous speech for Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne that criticised the Holy Office (the old name for the CDF): "[Its] methods and behaviour do not confirm to the modern era and are a source of scandal to the world." Seen against his own record at the helm of the CDF, the irony could not have been starker.

The Austrian Bishop Helmut Krtzl, who was a seminarian in Rome during the Council, wrote in 1998: "No one would have suspected that Joseph Ratzinger, who inserted himself so energetically for a renewed vision of the Church and thus struggled against the one-sided exercise of power by the Curia, would later become himself a high-ranking curial Cardinal and Prefect of the CDF" (quoted in National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999).

Many have pondered over the reasons for Ratzinger's transformation. Kng, a former colleague of Ratzinger at the University of Tbingen in Germany, thinks that theologically and philosophically he is "stamped by Augustine's pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura's Platonising neglect of the visible and empirical (in contrast to Thomas Aquinas)" (My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs; Continuum, 2003; page 457). Kng identifies 1968, when left-wing students disrupted Ratzinger's lectures in Tbingen, as the precise turning point. It had a "permanent shock effect" on him, says the Swiss theologian, whose licence to teach Catholic theology was withdrawn by the Vatican in 1979. The incidents, Kng adds, made him fearful of "all movements `from below', whether these are student chaplaincies, groups of priests, movements of Church people, the Iglesia popular or liberation theology" (ibid., page 458).

The experience of the War and the student revolts had a deep impact on Ratzinger. Added to this was the perception among a section of influential Catholic theologians such as the French Jesuit Fr. Henri de Lubac and the Swiss Hans Urs von Balthasar that the liberals' interpretation of the Second Vatican Council documents and the resultant reforms had undermined what was distinctively Catholic. Ratzinger, who belonged to this camp, said: "Reform thus seemed really to consist, not in a radicalisation of faith, but in any kind of dilution of the faith" (Salt of the Earth; page 75). He helped them found a journal, Communio, in 1972. It was to counter Concilium, considered to be closer to the liberal camp and edited by Rahner, Kng and others.

All this taught him an important lesson on the role of the Church in the world. His biographer and Vatican observer John L. Allen Jr. notes: "The Church's service to society, Ratzinger concluded, is to stand for absolute truths that function as boundary markers: Move about within these limits, but outside them lies disaster" (National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999). However, looking back at the 1930s and 1940s, other German Catholic theologians felt that the culture of blind obedience to the Church was one of the reasons behind the lack of opposition to Nazism from among Christians. After all, even the Church's role - in fact, that of Pope Pius XII itself - is under a cloud for failing to condemn strongly the many crimes of Hitler.

Allen's comment points to another crucial element that went into the making of Ratzinger the theologian: a deep-rooted concern for the truth. His episcopal motto as the Archbishop of Munich was "Co-workers of the Truth". Here it is essential to take into account his understanding of the word. As Ratzinger himself has testified, he is a "decided Augustinian" (Salt of the Earth; page 33), meaning a follower of the 5th century Christian intellectual giant St. Augustine of Hippo. (Ratzinger's doctoral dissertation at the University of Munich was titled "The People and the House of God in St. Augustine's Doctrine of the Church".) St. Augustine equated "Truth", "Being" and "Goodness" with God, the immutable reference point and unifying factor for all creation. It is only when God "illuminates" a person's mind can he or she distinguish between what is "true" and "untrue" and what is "good" and "bad". God makes knowledge possible.

One may ask whether such a concept of absolute truth is credible or necessary at all. Ratzinger, for one, is not in doubt: "In the course of my intellectual life I experienced very acutely the problem of whether it isn't actually presumptuous to say that we can know the truth - in the face of all our limitations.... In pursuing this question, however, I was able to observe and also to grasp that relinquishing truth doesn't solve anything but, on the contrary, leads to the tyranny of caprice.... Man is degraded if he can't know truth, if everything, in the final analysis, is just the product of an individual or collective decision" (ibid., page 67).

He is more vehement in condemning "false good-naturedness". Ratzinger says: "People would sooner put up with false, impure, untruthful, and evil things than cause or have problems. There is a willingness to purchase well-being, success, public regard, and approval from the reigning opinion by dispensing with the truth.... The fact is that under the pretext of goodness people neglect conscience. They place acceptance, the avoidance of problems, the comfortable pursuit of their existence, the good opinion of others, and good-naturedness above truth in the scale of values" (ibid., page 68). Surely, none, even his detractors, would accuse Ratzinger of "false good-naturedness" during his tenure as the Church's chief "heresy-hunter".

OFTEN the name that a newly elected Pope assumes gives some indication about his idea of the papacy. Benedict XVI is immediately reminiscent of St. Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of Europe and the founder of Western monasticism. In the context of a "de-Christianised" Europe, the name suggests a pontificate focussed on reviving faith in the continent and reminding it of its Christian roots.

Pope Benedict XV who served as the head of the Catholic Church from 1914 to 1922.-AP

More relevant seems to be the association with Benedict XV, Pope from 1914 to 1922. Giacamo della Chiesa was the Archbishop of Bologna in Italy when he was elected Pope at the age of 60. He tried, in vain, to find a peaceful solution to the First World War. Within the Church, his lasting contribution was to end the notorious campaign against "modernism" launched by his predecessor Pius X in 1907 with the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Defining "modernism" as the "synthesis of all heresies", Pius X forced Catholic bishops, teachers and priests to take an anti-modernist oath. Those suspected of having "modernist" views were harassed; the victims were the best Catholic theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars of the day. In his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (1914), Benedict XV called an end to the "dissension and strife, of whatever character, amongst Catholics". He was a Pope of reconciliation and peace.

The symbolism, ironic or not, of Ratzinger taking on the name of Benedict XVI is inescapable. (Is he implying that John Paul II's pontificate was a divisive and strife-torn one?) And in his first major address to the world he tried hard to convey the message that as Pope he would be a different person. On April 24, the day his pontificate was formally inaugurated, he told a gathering of over 300,000 people in St. Peter's Square: "At this moment there is no need for me to present a programme of governance.... My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord... " (emphasis added). It was a far cry from the combative tone of his homily at the special Mass before the conclave began on April 18: "We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." After the inauguration, among the 12 people, representing the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, who lined up to kiss the new Pope's ring was a religious woman - the first ever to take part in the ritual.

More than ever before, the future of the Church seems to hinge on this Pope's past not catching up with him.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor