Pope Journeyed From Reformer to Enforcer

A progressive theology professor raised in the Nazi era recoiled from Marxist agitation.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

April 24, 2005

MUNICH, Germany — As student unrest bristled across the campus of Tuebingen University in the 1960s, Marxist rabble rousers would burst into the classroom of Father Joseph Ratzinger, a diminutive intellectual who preferred Mozart and the writings of St. Augustine to the chaotic and changing times around him.

Some of the students heckled the priest, whistling and interrupting his theological lectures. Ratzinger had been a voice for reform in the Roman Catholic Church, but the disrespect of the students and their relentless demands unnerved him and redirected the course of his religious thinking, according to friends, priests and theologians.

"Ratzinger is a letter writer, not a man of confrontation, and he was deeply disturbed by these Marxist commandos," said Hans Kung, a fellow professor at the university four decades ago. "He was wounded internally. He felt betrayed. It was a decisive moment for him. He's timid and suspicious and he developed a complex against reforms."

Rigid morals and devotion to tradition were the central tenets that last week elevated Ratzinger from powerful cardinal to Pope Benedict XVI. Born in the mountains of Bavaria and schooled in a seminary eventually taken over by the Nazis, Benedict was swept into World War II and later forced to confront a world he viewed as spinning away from God and toward the demeaning realms of secularism and liberal politics.

Critics say Benedict's theology is barbed with troubling prejudices. Much of his conservative thinking was inspired by a determination to buttress the church against tyrannies such as fascism and Marxism. The man who once said Mozart's music "contains the whole tragedy of human existence" also equated homosexuality with an "intrinsic moral evil." He can eloquently quote St. Matthew on the suffering of the poor, yet is opposed to the use of condoms to prevent AIDS from spreading in Africa.

The new pope, however, is a man not of contradiction, but complexity, theologians say. His thinking is more nuanced than his public persona as the church's "enforcer of the faith" suggests.

The theologies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are the same, but their personalities are different. John Paul was energetic and possessed a rustic, mystical charm. Benedict was a quiet, shy boy who grew into a timid man, but one who even critics agree is witty and pleasant, a multilingual musician who occasionally seeks out criticism.

"I think he's sometimes caught between his modernist ideas and his conservatism," said Father Josef Gragmaier, pastor of St. Maria's Church in Munich and a childhood friend of Ratzinger who was ordained a priest with him.

"He has this tension inside him. But I think it's useless to compare him as a progressive or a conservative. He knows the scriptures and that the message of Jesus Christ doesn't change."

Devotion to Christ was woven into the foothills and snow-streaked mountains of Bavaria, where Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927. The town of his birth, Marktl am Inn, is about 20 miles from Adolf Hitler's origins in Braunau, Austria.

For centuries the region was known for salt mines, Catholicism and beer brewed from the recipes of friars and monks. Ratzinger and his brother, Georg, were the sons of a police officer. They attended St. Michael's seminary on a rise overlooking their boyhood home outside Traunstein.

Ratzinger would later write in his memoir, "About My Life," that he was bright but not athletic, a deficiency that bothered him because he thought he was holding back his soccer teams.

Nazism seeped across Bavaria in the 1930s. Crucifixes were removed from classrooms, Catholic youth groups met in secret, Nazi rallies were held in the town square near St. Oswald's Church and fascist sympathizers began appearing as teachers and coaches at the seminary.

A 1935 photo shows an 8-year-old Joseph Ratzinger sitting in class with a picture of Hitler hanging beside a chalkboard.

"The Nazis always told us, 'We are the new era,' " Gragmaier said.

The people of Traunstein did not rise up to stop Nazi attacks on Jewish homes and businesses during the anti-Semitic violence of Nov. 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht. They did not later intervene to stop their small community of Jews from being deported to concentration camps.

The Ratzinger family despised the Nazis, according to biographers. But, like many teenagers at the time, Joseph joined the Hitler Youth for fear of retribution. Families that resisted the Nazis paid a price. Father Rupert Berger, a retired priest who lives in Traunstein and also was ordained the same day as Ratzinger, said his father openly opposed National Socialism.

"My father was well known in the resistance," Berger recalled. "He was fired from his job as a health insurance officer and ended up in Dachau…. When my father was released from the concentration camp, he never told us what happened until years later. My father gave me the freedom to join the Hitler Youth. I said no."

Berger admires Benedict. He paused when asked why Benedict didn't refuse to join the youth brigade, which assigned him to an antiaircraft unit. He said — as have Jewish groups and historians who have credited Benedict for his efforts to improve the Catholic Church's relations with Jews — that the pope cannot be blamed for enrolling. It was another time, Berger said, when fear and oppression were constants, and few knew what the Nazis were conspiring to do.

Ratzinger was discharged from the Hitler Youth in 1944 at age 18 and was immediately drafted into the German army to dig antitank trenches. His friend, Gragmaier, was shipped to the Russian front. Gragmaier said Ratzinger was wounded and sent to St. Michael's seminary, which the Nazis had turned into a hospital. Ratzinger deserted in the spring of 1945, just before Germany's defeat, and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by American forces.

The war defined Ratzinger's early view that the church could endure evil and emerge stronger, according to the biography "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of Faith," by John L. Allen Jr. The book quotes Ratzinger as saying, "Hitler's would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory of the anti-Christ that would surely usher in apocalyptic times for all believers." He added that the church was a "citadel of truth and righteousness against the realm of atheism and defeat."

In November 1945, Ratzinger entered the seminary in Freising, where he reunited with Gragmaier, back from the Russian front. The two, along with Ratzinger's brother, were ordained priests in 1951.

"Benedict went to Munich University for higher study," Gragmaier said, sitting in his rectory in a gray suit with a silver cross pin shining on his black tie. "I didn't want to become a theologian. I wanted to be a parish priest. But Benedict was very gifted. His memory was outstanding."

Ratzinger received a doctorate from Munich in 1953. Over the next decade, according to theologians and friends, he refined a progressive theology. He was inspired by the works of St. Augustine and St. Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan during the Council of Trent in the 16th century, when the church enacted reforms to stop corruption and attempted to counter the Protestant Reformation.

Some Vatican experts suggest that Benedict, who in the 1960s wanted to intellectually open a church clinging to Middle Ages dogma, saw Borromeo as a role model.

"Borromeo did nothing less than reconstruct the church," Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote recently in the Italian magazine Espresso. "He created a modern form of the church."

Such aspirations were at least partly on Ratzinger's mind when he traveled to Rome in 1962 for the church's Second Vatican Council. Already considered one of Catholicism's most gifted thinkers, the 35-year-old Ratzinger came to the council with his boss, Cardinal Joseph Frings. Kung, another rising theologian with reformist ambitions who had met Ratzinger in 1957, also attended. Both men sought a less bureaucratic institution and improved relations with Jews.

"Some of the older men at the Vatican saw Ratzinger and Kung and said, 'What's this, teenage theologians?' " Gragmaier recounted.

Ratzinger helped draft a withering document criticizing the church's Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, a 450-year-old body that guarded against heresy. The document suggested the Holy Office had evolved little since the days of the medieval Inquisition.

The critique prompted Pope Paul VI to overhaul the office, which was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nineteen years later, Pope John Paul II would appoint Ratzinger to head the office in an effort to tug the church away from the liberalism spawned by Vatican II and back to its traditional conservatism.

"The Second Vatican Council was where you could see the [more open] side of Benedict coming to the fore," Gragmaier said. "He was young, and he brought his modernist ideas."

In 1966, Kung arranged for Ratzinger to be hired as a theology professor at Tuebingen University, a stronghold of Catholic intellectualism in southwest Germany. Ratzinger, entering his 40s, continued his progressive writing and research, but became increasingly agitated by the Marxist student protesters.

Germany and Western Europe, it seemed to Ratzinger, were careening away from their spiritual centers and drifting toward a dangerous moral vacuum. The violence of Nazism afforded his first encounter with a godless tyranny, and the unruly liberal environment of the late '60s, along with the materialism and moral relativism that followed, would all again be viewed by Ratzinger as shackles on human aspirations for freedom.

"I have seen the unveiled and cruel face of this pious atheism," Ratzinger wrote in "About My Life."

Said Gragmaier: "The students yelled and whistled him down in lecture halls. This liberalism was a fashion, and as a young teacher, Benedict was progressive himself, but he quickly discovered this could all go in the wrong direction."

Kung said Ratzinger recoiled. "I confronted these people. Most of it was fashion, but there was some merit. [Ratzinger] did not want to listen."

Ratzinger resigned from Tuebingen in 1969 and moved to Regensburg to teach and to be closer to his brother in Bavaria. Ten years later, Ratzinger, then archbishop of Munich, was instrumental in the Vatican's censure of Kung, whose positions on papal infallibility and Catholic politics were considered too liberal.

"The big clash came when [Ratzinger] was involved in the maneuvers against me, which ended in the withdrawal of my ecclesiastical teaching license," said Kung, 77, who is president of the Global Ethic Foundation. "It was the end of our friendship. [Ratzinger] remained in this medieval Counter-Reformation anti-modern paradigm…. He's so bright, but he can be unsophisticated. He prefers to caricature his enemies."

Ratzinger's conservatism hardened, and his keen mind caught the notice of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978. In Ratzinger, theologians said, John Paul found a loyalist who shared the Polish pontiff's great goal: remaining true to Catholicism's conservative precepts while resonating with a turbulent, modern world.

John Paul would take this mission on the road, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles and transforming the papacy. Ratzinger would work amid the Vatican's marbled halls and Renaissance splendor.

Magister said Borromeo again became a role model for Ratzinger, who believed that the church had to be strengthened against eroding religious traditions. "The church must react," Magister quoted Ratzinger as saying, "with all the courage it can muster, not conforming itself to the times, not falling to its knees before the world."

After taking the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, Ratzinger became the articulator of church teachings, the legal detail to John Paul's vision. He shaped church opposition to homosexuality, Latin American "liberation theology," secularism, globalization, women in the priesthood, contraception and religious plurality.

He led what was known as a Kulturekampf, or cultural war, against dissident theologians and questioned the value of other religions, once referring to Buddhism as an "auto-erotic spirituality." He was a godsend to conservatives and a bane to liberals. He became the lightning rod for a charismatic, mystical pope.

"Ratzinger's job is a thankless one," a high-ranking Vatican official told The Times as long ago as 1986. "It's inevitable that he would be seen as the 'fall guy.' General civility within the church would avoid an overly blunt, personal attack on the pope."

Even in physical attributes, John Paul seemed to overshadow the less dynamic Ratzinger. Bishop Egon Kapellari of Austria offered this view: "He liked to take mountain walks, but he was not such an athlete, not like the last pope."

Despite the new pope's conservative image, Mario Marazziti, a spokesman for the Community of Sant Edigio, which works with the poor, said Ratzinger wrote a powerful treatise on poverty in his 1960 book, "The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood."

"It's the strongest theological discourse that I know on the theme of the poor because it is the one that puts the poor in the Christian community," said Marazziti, citing Ratzinger's interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew. "It is the only time in the Gospels that the word 'brothers' is used to refer not to the apostles … but to another category. And it is the poor."

At his first papal Mass, Benedict spoke of starting a "theological dialogue" with other faiths and reaching out to the young. His conciliatory tone and words were a sharp departure from his staunchly conservative comments before the conclave that ended in his elevation. Some theologians wondered whether his papacy would be less rigid than the atmosphere he created enforcing doctrine for John Paul.

"The question is: How will he do that?" said Bernd Jochen Hilberath, a Catholic theologian at Tuebingen University. "So far, he's been the brakeman. Now he wants to be the forerunner?

"I'm looking forward to the new momentum coming from him. His complex personality is allowing hope. He's too much of a theologian to not know that one cannot just repeat everything in old language and dictate from above."


Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella and Alissa J. Rubin in Rome, Sonya Yee in Vienna and Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.