Pope Benedict XVI

Christianity
Catholicism

He was Pope John Paul II’s sidekick, his confidant and his enforcer. So when the feeble prelate met his maker it was not a huge surprise that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger assumed the Fisherman’s Ring to become the world’s top Roman Catholic, the supposed incarnation of God’s word on Earth.

As John Paul’s bulldog, the suave, white-haired German had run the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – aka the Inquisition. The zealots in past centuries who perfected the use of thumbscrews and the rack to force Jews, Muslims and other dissenters to adopt the Vatican’s more ‘accurate’ understanding of the one true faith are now long gone. But Ratzinger is seen by some as their spiritual heir: he was the Vatican’s defender of doctrinal orthodoxy for more than 30 years, where his unbending conservatism earned him the nickname ‘God’s Rottweiler’.

The 78-year-old Ratzinger is the oldest man to be elected Pope in nearly three centuries. He was born in Bavaria in 1927 and is nearly 20 years older than John Paul was when he became pontiff. However, Pope Benedict XVI shows few signs of slowing down. He is a tough-minded intellectual, fluent in four languages – the papal acceptance speech was in flawless English, French, Italian and his native German. He began his church career as a seminarian in Nazi Germany. He had a brief fling in the Hitler Youth but only because it was compulsory – he was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was later conscripted into the German Army from which he eventually deserted before ending the war as an American POW.

After completing his doctorate on St Augustine in 1953 he taught ‘systematic theology’ before ascending to the position of Archbishop of Munich in 1977. From there John Paul II invited him to Rome, where he took up residence in 1981.

Once settled, he was quick to make a mark with his old-fashioned dogmatism and conservative values. He was particularly upset by what he saw as the destructive, liberalizing influences unleashed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). These ‘wild excesses’ extended to the introduction of a non-Latin Mass which Ratzinger characterized as a ‘tragic breach’ of tradition.

The Cardinal’s discomfort with modern life and yearning for the good old days also extended to the social realm, especially into the areas of gay and women’s rights.

In 1986 he issued a letter to the Catholic Bishops in which he wrote that homosexuality was a tendency towards ‘intrinsic moral evil’. Later, in 1992, he rejected the notion of human rights for gays, stressing that their civil liberties could be ‘legitimately limited’. For example: ‘in the consignment of children to adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers and coaches and in military recruitment.’ Not surprisingly, one of his first acts after becoming Pope was to blast Spain’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage as ‘profoundly iniquitous’.

Benedict XVI, in the tradition of John Paul II, is woefully ignorant of women’s issues. ‘Women are simply not on the radar,’ says Frances Kissling of the US Catholics for Free Choice group. She says the Church’s ‘capacity for discourse with women is comparable to their capacity for discourse with extraterrestrials from Mars.’

Along with women in the priesthood and sex outside marriage the new Pope is deeply opposed to what he labels ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ – a code word for the perceived moral laxity of modern Western culture. Part of his tough guy stance is his opposition to condom use which he calls ‘technically unreliable’ (like he would know) and ‘morally unacceptable’. The issue is not ‘safe sex’, he opines, it’s ‘permissiveness’. In a world where millions are infected with HIV this advice is not just stupid, it’s criminal.

During his stint as chief enforcer of the faith, Pope Benedict also did his best to torpedo liberation theology – a popular Latin American movement that urged Catholics actively to side with the poor in their fight for justice. He muzzled outspoken ‘liberation’ priests like Brazil’s charismatic Leonardo Boff and warned the ex-Bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, to preach the Gospel ‘in its integrity without Marxist interpretations’.

Benedict XVI is no fan of ecumenism either. He has been a key force behind the right-wing, anti-immigrant drive for a ‘Christian Europe’. In 1997 he irked Buddhists by calling their beliefs an ‘autoerotic spirituality’ that offers ‘transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations’.

After the media frenzy has faded and the crowds vanished from St Peter’s Square, Benedict XVI will remain a quaint curiosity, sadly out of step with the modern world. And the institutional Church will continue its inexorable decline – increasingly irrelevant to ordinary Catholics.

mag cover This article is from the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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