Servant of a changing church

By Hugh Williamson and Tony Barber

Financial Times

Published: April 23 2005

Margaret Richardi is sure she knows the real Pope. A personal friend of Joseph Ratzinger - now Benedict XVI - for the last 30 years, Mrs Richardi lives only a few hundred metres from the house the former German cardinal keeps in the village of Pentling, near Regensburg in central Bavaria. She has shared her dinner table with him many times.

"He is a very modest man and easy to be with. For instance, he has often played puzzles with our grandchildren on our living room floor," says Mrs Richardi, whose husband, a law professor, taught alongside the new Pope, then a theology professor, at Regensburg university in the 1970s. "He finds it easy to talk with ordinary people," she adds.

Such a description appears to chime with Benedict's first words as Pope to the vast crowd in St Peter's Square last Tuesday, moments after his election, when he described himself as "a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord".

Yet this image of the new Pope appears to clash with other perceptions of the slightly stooped, frail-seeming silver-haired man who now leads the world's 1.1bn Roman Catholics. As head since 1981 of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's agency for doctrinal orthodoxy, he built a formidable reputation as a steely hardliner. He reined in dissident priests, ensured power remained centralised in the Vatican and stamped on radical Church movements around the world.

Cardinals in Rome this week, seemingly worried that this view of the Pope had gained the upper hand with the public, scurried to redress the balance, stressing the Pope's compassionate side and cautioning against facile assumptions about how Benedict's papacy would evolve. "We must not forget that being elected Pope transforms a man completely," Cardinal Achille Silvestrini of Italy told reporters. Even Benedict's harshest critics concede that a snap judgment could be confounded. Hans Küng, the Swiss-born liberal theologian who is probably the new Pope's best-known sparring partner, said in a statement that while Benedict's election "was an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral Pope . . . we must wait and see, for experience shows that the papacy in the Catholic Church today is such a challenge that it can change anyone". Bernd Jochen Hilberath, who occupies the Tübingen university chair in theology held in the late 1960s by the new Pope, already sees evidence of change: "The new Pope is not like the last one, not charismatic, not a big communicator. So who would have expected him to actually smile and appear relaxed when he came on to the balcony [overlooking St Peter's Square]?"

Benedict, who turned 78 three days before his election and is in poor health, will certainly not have the opportunity to stamp his mark on the Church in as decisive a fashion as John Paul II, his predecessor, who was only 58 when elected in 1978.

His early decisions have been cautious. On Thursday, he reappointed all the highest-ranking Vatican officials who held office at the time of John Paul's death - a signal of continuity to the Church's faithful.

There is another reason Benedict is unlikely to stray far from the traditional teachings that he and John Paul insisted should be followed by the world's bishops and priests. It is all but certain that the Church will take steps in the near future to beatify and then canonise John Paul, making it hard, if not impossible, for his successor to modify the late pope's message.

"The shadow of John Paul, in the best of senses, will hang over the Church for a very long time," says one Vatican official. "The Church is still digesting the impact of Vatican II [the reforming Church council of 1962-65]. It will take a long time to digest the papacy of John Paul." The expectations Benedict faces are nevertheless enormous. He must attempt to stem the haemorrhage of support among Catholics in large parts of Europe and the US, during the reigns of John Paul and Pope Paul VI. He will have to manage relations with other faiths. Although few expect him to give much, if any ground, on social issues, celibacy, the role of women, and calls for greater powers for national churches and bishops in the management of the Church worldwide, he will at least have to address pressures from liberal Catholics.

He will also have to focus on the challenges facing the Church outside the industrialised world. In particular, in relations with Latin America, home to the largest contingent of the world's Catholics, he will have to overcome his reputation as an even fiercer enemy of liberation theology, the movement that became associated with a radical leftwing critique of the region's social conditions, than John Paul.

In spite of his conservative reputation, those who hope that Benedict will initiate at least some changes point to the Pope's personal history. Born in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, a village on the German-Austrian border, he became a priest in 1951 and archbishop of Munich in 1977, before being brought to Rome by John Paul II in 1981.

While in Germany, he built a reputation as an outstanding scholar. Wilhelm Gräb, theology professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, says that reputation is intact. The Pope has more than 40 books to his name and "is on top of all the theological debates, not something one can say about all church leaders," he says.

While still in his 30s, the Pope played a key role in Vatican II, for which he was the chief adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Germany. Mgr Ratzinger is thought to have drafted a speech in which Cardinal Frings criticised the Holy Office - the agency later to become the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - and argued, in what was then a highly provocative manner, that its "methods and behaviour do not conform to the modern era and are a source of scandal to the world". The irony is lost on no one that, for more than 23 years the then Cardinal Ratzinger ruled with a rod of iron the agency that he is presumed to have attacked in the 1960s.

Benedict's critics say they think he switched to the Church's conservative wing after witnessing at first hand the leftwing student tumult at Tübingen university in 1968, a phenomenon that horrified him.

But Benedict's supporters say his insistence on the sanctity of absolute moral values stems, in part, from his analysis of the experience of the Catholic and Protestant churches under Nazi Germany, from 1933 to 1945.

In their view, he concluded that liberal German Christianity had proved most vulnerable to Nazi terror tactics. Christians with a firm belief in their own absolute moral system were more likely to hold out against such pressure - just as now, in a materialistic and godless Europe, it is the more theologically orthodox Catholics who will keep the Church's banner flying.

Concern over Benedict's own wartime experiences (in particular the short time he spent in Hitler's youth organisation at the age of 14) is misplaced, according to Hans-Ulrich Wehler, one of Germany's most respected historians. "Children were forced by law to join; those who did not were rounded up by the police," says Mr Wehler, "Ratzinger's experiences are normal for his generation." Ultimately, even the Pope's critics are hopeful that he will find the scope within his strict moral code to develop a more progressive agenda. Gotthold Hasenhüttl, a senior liberal German theologian banned by the Vatican in 2003 from priestly duties because he organised an ecumenical communion service, says there is "a chance Benedict will be a different man" than the cardinal who entered the conclave on Monday.

In spite of their differing views, Mr Hasenhüttl was - at least until 2003 - on friendly relations with the former cardinal and recalls the time in the late 1960s when, as a junior lecturer in Tübingen, he regularly drove him around town. "He once said to me that his conservative views provide him with an anchor, enabling him to address problems with an open mind. That gives me some hope."

The new Pope's choice of papal name may be one indication of his goals. Paul VI declared St Benedict the patron saint of Europe in 1964, which may suggest that the new Pope thinks the defence of Christianity in Europe will be a priority for his reign. The choice may also relate to the futile efforts by Benedict XV, Pope from 1914 to 1922, to save Europe from a civilisation-destroying war.

Benedict XVI is expected to give further hints on the direction of his papacy at tomorrow's inauguration service in Rome. Mrs Richardi looks forward to hearing more from her neighbour. She talked to Cardinal Ratzinger by phone last Sunday, and asked him if he thought he would become Pope. "He said neither yes nor no, but deflected the question," she says. Such tactics will no longer work. It is time for Pope Benedict XVI to state his mission clearly.