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Posted April 19, 2005 at  6:15 p.m. CDT

Hero of church's conservative wing
Becomes Pope Benedict XVI

By John L. Allen, Jr.

In electing the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the  College of Cardinals made a daring choice for a man who, despite his 78 years of age, seems destined to lead a strong, consequential pontificate: Joseph Ratzinger, the intellectual architect of John Paul II’s papacy as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger is that rare individual among Vatican officials, a celebrity among men who normally move in the shadows. He had a run-away bestseller in 1986 with The Ratzinger Report, a book-length interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. He is probably the lone official of the Roman Curia that most Catholics could actually identify, and a man about whom many of them hold strong opinions.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope April 19. He took the name Benedict XVI
He is a hero to the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, a man who had the toughness to articulate the traditional truths of the faith in a time of dissent and doubt. To Catholic liberals, on the other hand, he is something of a Darth Vader figure, someone who looms as a formidable opponent of many of the reforms of which they have long dreamed.

It was Ratzinger, for example, who in the mid-1980s led the Vatican crackdown on liberation theology, a movement in Latin America that sought to align the Roman Catholic Church with progressive movements for social change. Ratzinger saw liberation theology as a European export that amounted to Marxism in another guise, and brought the full force of Vatican authority to stopping it in its tracks. He sought to redefine the nature of bishops’ conferences around the world, insisting that they lack teaching authority. That campaign resulted in a 1998 document, Apostolos Suos, that some saw as an attack on powerful conferences such as those in the United States and Germany that to some extent acted as counterweights to the Vatican.

It was Ratzinger who in a famous 1986 document defined homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” In the 1990s, Ratzinger led a campaign against the theology of religious pluralism, insisting that the traditional teaching of Christ as the lone and unique savior of humanity not be compromised. This effort culminated in the 2001 document Dominus Iesus, which asserted that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation” with respect to Christians.

These are perhaps the best-known, but hardly the only controversial declarations of Ratzinger over the years. He once called Buddhism an “auto-erotic spirituality,” and inveighed against rock music as a “vehicle of anti-religion.”

Ratzinger has also said on many occasions that the church of the future may have to be smaller to remain faithful, referring to Christianity’s short-term destiny as constituting a “creative minority.” He has also used the image of the “mustard seed,” suggesting a smaller presence that nevertheless carries the capacity for future growth as long as it remains true to itself.

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All this history has made Ratzinger a sign of contradiction for many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. As Benedict XVI, in other words, he is a pope who begins his ministry with both a strong base of support and a degree of baggage, in the sense that a broad swath of watchers will be expecting a hard-line, divisive pontificate.

Yet those who know Ratzinger have always been struck by the contrast between his bruising, polarizing public image and his kind, genteel, generous private side. In person, Ratzinger comes across as refined and almost shy, and bishops who have had dealings with him over the years almost uniformly testify that he is a good listener, genuinely interested in working collegially. Those with trepidations about a Ratzinger papacy will be watching carefully in the days and weeks to come for indications that this kinder, gentler Ratzinger will be the figure who emerges as Pope Benedict XVI.

The very name is maybe one indication. While the primary reference may be to St. Benedict, the founder of European monasticism, no doubt there are echoes also of Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922 and put an end to the conservative anti-modernist campaigns of the pontificate of St. Pius X. Benedict said that rather than worrying about the least signals of doctrinal error, it was enough for someone to use Catholic as their first name, and Christian as their family name.

Perhaps, therefore, Pope Benedict XVI was sending a subtle signal that he too would like to be a conciliator rather than an authoritarian, repressive figure.

Ratzinger’s life story in many ways sums up the experience of European Catholicism in the 20th century. He was born in Bavaria in 1927, and grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany. When Ratzinger was in the equivalent of high school, membership in the Hitler Youth was made compulsory and he was briefly enrolled, though he asked to be removed and never attended any activities. He was later conscripted into the German army and served briefly in an anti-aircraft battalion before deserting. His family was anti-Nazi, and Ratzinger never demonstrated the least affinity for National Socialism.

As Ratzinger later reflected on this experience, he drew the conclusion that liberal German Christianity proved the most vulnerable to pressure to assimilate to Nazi ideology, while the conservative denominations that were most clear as to their own identity were better able to resist. Some of his ferocious devotion to traditional forms of faith and practice no doubt reflect that experience.

As a young theologian, Ratzinger was a peritus, or theological assistant, of Cardinal Joseph Frings at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Ratzinger was seen as part of the broad progressive majority. In a stroke of irony, he ghost-wrote a speech for Frings in which he referred to the Holy Office, which later became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as a scandal. It was the very office he would later lead under John Paul II.

What many would consider his best-known theological work, Introduction to Christianity, dates from this period.

With the student protests that swept Europe in 1968, Ratzinger, along with a broad swath of Catholic opinion, began to sense that something dangerous had been set loose in the church by the reforming winds of the post-conciliar period. He began to move in a steadily more conservative direction, and eventually was named the Archbishop of Munich in 1977, and a cardinal shortly thereafter, by Pope Paul VI. In that capacity, he participated in the two conclaves of 1978.

In 1981, he was called to Rome by John Paul II to head up the pope’s doctrinal office. Despite the heavy workload imposed by the position, he has also continued to publish his own works on theology, liturgy and cultural criticism.

Whatever one makes of his theological positions, Ratzinger is almost universally recognized as one of the preeminent Catholic intellectuals of his generation, a man of vast culture and refinement. He plays the piano in his spare time, and his brother Georg served as the director of the Regensburg choir. Ratzinger once said of Mozart that his music “contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

For those watching for clues as to how he intends to lead, those initial images of Pope Benedict XVI on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square, beaming and waving, referring to himself as a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” were perhaps important indications. Every pope gets a honeymoon, a period in which the overwhelming Catholic desire is to see him succeed. While Benedict XVI may need that honeymoon more than most, to reassure sectors of Catholic and secular opinion with concerns about what it all means, those first images seemed full of promise.

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