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Raising Ratzingerby Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published in somewhat different form on January 13, 2005
in Bay Windows
The prospect, recently reported in Time Magazine, that the arch-conservative Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger could be the next Pope, illustrates an enduring trait of the Catholic Church that was evident even in the tumultuous years of the early 1960s the tenacity of the Roman Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) in resisting reform. Ratzinger is the consummate Vatican operative.
The Sixties began promisingly for Holy Mother Church, with Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, and the general opening of the Church to modern times. But the reformist Pope put the Curia in charge of reforming itself. The decade ended with the more repressive Pope Paul VI, an encyclical attacking the Pill, and a crackdown on dissenting priests. After the brief tenure of the "Smiling Pope" John Paul I in 1978, Pope John Paul II took repression to a new level.
Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who as a young man influenced the agenda for Vatican II, recently said of John Paul II, "He is a man of what I would call the mediaeval, anti-reformation, anti-modern paradigm of the church, and he tried to convince the whole church to join him in re-establishing this mediaeval papacy." John Paul's chief enforcer in this effort is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.
Ratzinger has been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981 and dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002. In 1986, Ratzinger issued his notorious "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," stating of homosexuality that "the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." Also in the letter, after deploring anti-gay violence, Ratzinger justified it: "[W]hen civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase." His sympathy for violent reactions recalls the phrase in Leviticus 20:13, "their blood shall be on their own heads." In the same letter, Ratzinger called gay rights advocacy a threat to the family.
In his July 2004 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," Ratzinger took on feminism and connected it with the gay movement: "The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes ..., intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
Temple University professor Leonard Swidler, co-founder and president of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church and a former colleague of Ratzinger's at the University of Tübingen, wrote to Ratzinger in response, "If you truly wanted a dialogue, why didn’t you invite a group of the outstanding women we have in the Catholic Church to talk with you? In your Holy Office you have a whole staff of theological experts who provide you with the results of their research. As far as I can tell, none of them are women theologians of which there is no dearth."
Küng, who in 1966 helped Ratzinger obtain his faculty position at Tübingen, suggests that Ratzinger's suspicion of liberalism dates to 1968, when he witnessed student revolts at the university. Ratzinger left the university the following year. "To the present day," Küng writes in his recently published memoirs, "Ratzinger has shown phobias about all movements 'from below', whether these are student chaplaincies, groups of priests, movements of Church people, the Iglesia popular or liberation theology."
At Tübingen, Ratzinger was appalled by what he regarded as the supplanting of religion by Marxist political ideology, and later told an interviewer, "There was an instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel." In this one sees echoes of Karol Wojtyla's fight against Soviet Communism, which he continued when he became Pope. Both men made the mistake of over-generalizing from their own experience. As they might realize if they were not acclimatized to authoritarian surroundings, not all critics of Rome are Marxists.
Ratzinger has had his moderate moments. For example, he reportedly dissuaded the Pope from issuing "infallible" pronouncements declaring the Blessed Virgin Mary "co-redemptrix of the world" and prohibiting birth control. But this moderation appears to be motivated by tactical considerations. Given his other pronouncements, it is likely that the only reason Ratzinger does not re-institute the old Index Prohibitorum (the list of forbidden books that was abolished in Vatican II, and which at times included works by Copernicus, Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Descartes) is that he knows it would be treated as a joke, and would give excellent publicity to the condemned authors.
In one of two June 1997 letters to the Austrian Bishops Conference responding to efforts by the liberal International Movement We Are Church, Ratzinger wrote, "The content of these 'Petitions of the People of the Church' consists of a series of demands, several of which deny Catholic teachings and are in flagrant opposition to Church discipline. It is self-evident that such initiatives cannot be condoned by the Church in any manner." He was not merely saying that the liberal activists were wrong, he demanded their exclusion from the Second European Ecumenical Assembly that year. He wrote, "These groups far exceed the bounds of legitimate concerns ... they propagate among the faithful an unacceptable democratic model of the Church...." Dissent and open discussion were simply not to be tolerated.
After the release of the letters caused a media firestorm, Ratzinger wrote a follow-up letter in March 1998 in which he appeared to backtrack: "A dialogue that seeks to serve the well-being of humanity and the expansion of the God's Kingdom will on the one hand be open to all people of good will and recoil from no important request, but will, on the other hand, lose sight neither of the charge of being custodians of the Gospel and Tradition nor the missionary calling of the Church." He added, "In principle, there are no objections to the carefully circumscribed participation of members of the 'We are Church' group in the events of the 'delegate day.'"
As Küng observed, "This represents a form of offensive, a maneuver to relieve pressure, rather than genuine dialogue." Not only does Ratzinger declare the We Are Church Movement out of step with Church teaching without bothering to explain why, he reminds the bishops that they are "custodians of the Gospel and Tradition" by which he means the same Vatican dogma to which the We Are Church movement objects.
Ratzinger and his allies resist being held accountable to anyone but His Holiness, and this extends even to criminal matters. Consider the case of nine former members of the Legion of Christ, a conservative international congregation that strongly defends papal authority. They have struggled for a quarter century to get Rome to take seriously their accusations that the Legion's founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, had sexually abused them as seminarians. Unluckily for them, Maciel is a close ally of Ratzinger. Even after the charges were made against Maciel, the Pope honored him and made him his special representative to a Latin American synod. Ratzinger halted a canonical proceeding against Maciel in late 1999 without explanation. When ABC News' Brian Ross asked Ratzinger about Maciel in 2002, Ratzinger literally slapped Ross' hand. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times in September 2004, Maciel continues to host dinners for "Vatican luminaries" at the Legion seminary in Rome.
Küng says of John Paul II, "I would agree that he preached the gospel for the poor, he was for human rights in the world. But all this was in blatant contradiction with what he has done in his own Church, because he repressed human rights in the Church." There is little sign that this would substantially change if John Paul's Grand Inquisitor were elevated to the Chair of St. Peter.