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Posted April 16, 2005 at 1:00 p.m. CDT

Outline of a Ratzinger papacy

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Despite the nonstop speculation surrounding the conclave that opens April 18, the press seems to have at least one thing right: in the early stages: The balloting will likely shape up as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the candidacy of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the so-called “Panzer-Kardinal” who for 24 years was John Paul’s top doctrinal czar.

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Given the strong, polarizing stands Ratzinger has taken, it’s not clear that there are really 77 votes for him among the 115 voting cardinals, the number it would take to achieve a two-thirds majority. On the other hand, Ratzinger’s strong base of support means one has to take his prospects seriously.

What would a Ratzinger papacy look like?

In the main, it would likely take shape along predictable lines. Ratzinger would mount a strenuous defense of Catholic identity, resisting enticements from secular culture to water down church teaching and practice; he would stress “Culture of Life” issues, doing battle against gay marriage, euthanasia and stem cell research; he would ensure that theological speculation is contained within narrow limits. He would likely travel less, and project a more ethereal style reminiscent of Pius XII. Ratzinger’s governing metaphor for the church of the future is the mustard seed – it may have to be smaller to be faithful, what he calls a “creative minority.”

One can also, however, anticipate elements of a Ratzinger pontificate that would come as a surprise, and that would mark a departure from the policies of John Paul II.

Letting institutions go

One of the longest controversies in the United States during John Paul’s papacy came over Catholic colleges and universities. The pope asked Catholic theologians to receive a mandatum, or license, from their local bishop, certifying their orthodoxy. After years of resistance, the U.S. bishops approved norms in 1999 that gave the Vatican most of what it wanted.

Under Ratzinger, the Vatican would be less likely to expend resources to preserve institutions it perceives as already lost to secularism. In his memoirs Milestones, Ratzinger reflected on the German church’s struggle to hold onto its schools under the Nazis. “It dawned on me that, with their insistence on preserving institutions, [the bishops] in part misread the reality. Merely to guarantee institutions is useless if there are no people to support those institutions from inner conviction.”

In the case of at least some colleges, Ratzinger’s instinct would thus be to drop the pretense that these are still Catholic institutions. He spelled this out in a book-length interview called Salt of the Earth: “Once the church has acquired some good or position, she inclines to defend it. The capacity for self-moderation and self-pruning is not adequately developed .... it’s precisely the fact that the church clings to the institutional structure when nothing really stands behind it any longer that brings the church into disrepute.”

The point applies also to hospitals, social service centers, and other institutions.

Shrinking church government

Because Ratzinger is the prime theoretician of papal authority, it is often assumed that under him the Vatican would take on even more massive proportions. In fact, like most conservatives, Ratzinger feels an instinctive aversion to big government. He believes that bureaucracies become self-perpetuating and take on their own agendas, rarely reflecting the best interests of the people they are intended to serve.

“The power typical of political rule or technical management cannot be and must not be the style of the church’s power," Ratzinger wrote in 1988’s A New Song for the Lord. “In the past two decades an excessive amount of institutionalization has come about in the church, which is alarming. … Future reforms should therefore aim not at the creation of yet more institutions, but at their reduction.”

While Ratzinger would not hesitate to make decisions in Rome that others believe should be the province of the local church – revoking imprimaturs, replacing translations, dismissing theologians – he would not erect a large new Vatican apparatus for this purpose. Ratzinger would encourage bishops’ conferences and dioceses to shed layers of bureaucracy where possible. The overall thrust would be for smaller size, less paperwork, and more focus on core concerns.

Better Bishops

Many Vatican watchers believe that one weakness of John Paul’s pontificate was his episcopal appointments. Some have been spectacularly bad, such as Wolfgang Haas in Switzerland, Hans Hermann Gröer and Kurt Krenn in Austria, and Jan Gijsen in Holland. Bellicose and divisive, these bishops destabilized their respective dioceses, countries and bishops’ conferences. Krenn, for example, recently resigned in disgrace following sexual scandals in his seminary in Sankt Pölten.

In 1985, the pope’s personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, a friend of Krenn, told the Congregation for Bishops that the pope had Krenn in mind as the new archbishop of Vienna. Ratzinger actually blocked Krenn’s appointment. Ratzinger knew that Krenn would be a disaster in a high-profile forum such as Vienna.

Given his long years of evaluating potential prelates (he serves on the Congregation for Bishops), Ratzinger knows the backgrounds of potential appointees, and would be able to spot potential problems. Backdoor channels would be less likely to generate surprise picks.

While Ratzinger’s appointments would be solidly conservative, they would also generally be men of intelligence and administrative skill.

Whether any of this would be sufficient to overcome opposition to Ratzinger from the church’s liberal wing remains to be seen, but it does suggest the possibility for the unexpected.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

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