New York Times
April 24, 2005
TÜBINGEN, Germany, April 23 - For all Pope Benedict XVI's decades as a Vatican insider, it may have been the crucible of a university town swept by student radicalism in the late 1960's that definitively shaped the man who now leads the Roman Catholic Church.
During his Bavarian childhood under the Nazis, Joseph Ratzinger became convinced that the moral authority based in Catholic teachings was the sole reliable bulwark against human barbarism, according to friends, associates, and his biographer, John L. Allen Jr.
But while his deep reading and thinking in theology, philosophy, and history were fundamental to development as a theologian, it was the protests of student radicals at Tübingen University - in which he saw an echo of the Nazi totalitarianism he loathed - that seem to have pushed him definitively toward deep conservatism and insistence on unquestioned obedience to the authority of Rome.
Before he arrived at the university, he had spent most of his time writing books and teaching in the Catholic theology departments of several German universities. His growing reputation was enhanced by the prominent role he was said to have played at the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 to formulate doctrines for the church in the modern world. (It was concluded three years later, under Pope Paul VI.)
When he arrived at Tübingen in southern Germany in 1966, he was widely viewed as a church reformer, a man who wanted to open the church up to dialogue with others in the world.
But in his autobiography, he shows that the Vatican Council also alerted him to what he deemed dangerous liberalizing tendencies from inside the church and to the danger that reform, if not tightly controlled by a guiding authority, can quickly go awry.
"Very clearly, resentment was growing against Rome and against the Curia, which appeared to be the real enemy of everything that was new and progressive," he writes. Academic "specialists," he complains, were encouraging the bishops to accept dubious assumptions. One of these assumptions was "the idea of an ecclesial sovereignty of the people in which the people itself determined what it wants to understand by church." The idea of the "church from below," which led to liberation theology, was being born and, as he puts it, "I became deeply troubled."
So he was already deeply suspicious of the left wing inside the church, when, in 1966, he joined the Catholic Theological Faculty of Tübingen University.
He had been recruited by none other than the liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng, the very man who became, and remains, one of his chief political and theological rivals. The experience of the student revolt seemed to confirm every suspicion that Father Ratzinger already nurtured about liberalizing tendencies and the hidden germ of totalitarianism lurking within revolutionary movements.
"Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations," he wrote of the atmosphere at the university, which, like many others in Germany at the time, was rocked by a student rebellion against authority.
His fellow faculty members describe a complicated picture of the time, and a very complex Joseph Ratzinger, who was just shy of 40 years old.
There are various versions of how tumultuous these years were in Tübingen, a quaint, gingerbready town, some of whose university buildings date from the 15th century. Some remember that the students behaved barbarically; others that they behaved like young idealistic people, carried away by naïve fervor but in no way dangerous to the established order. One thing they seem to agree on is that Father Ratzinger had a bad reaction to their protests, which one former colleague, Dietmar Mieth, said he saw as the terrorism of the street. He was troubled most particularly by the demands from within the theology departments for democratization of the church, notably from Professor Küng's students.
"People of his age and background panicked at the thought that a new, radical, dictatorial and totalitarian regime might come out of the '68 uprising," said Gustav Obermair, a liberal physicist who was president of Regensburg University, where Father Ratzinger went after leaving Tübingen in 1969. "Of course, this was a complete misreading of the '68 movement. But that is what they thought."
Professor Mieth remembered a time when perhaps 25 students invaded a meeting of the faculty senate at Tübingen. Most of the faculty, he said, took it in stride and talked with the students.
Only one, he said, picked up his things and left, and that was Joseph Ratzinger.
Max Seckler, then the dean of the Catholic Theological Faculty and now professor emeritus at Tübingen, put the student protesters in a darker light, and recalled a particular challenge to the new professor.
"The university was in chaos," he said. "It was horrible. The students kept professors from talking. They were verbally abusive, very primitive and aggressive, and this aggression was especially directed against Ratzinger. He had the most students coming to his lectures, but his personality was a magnet for this aggression. He had something fascinating about him, and this made him an object of hatred."
Professor Mieth recalled a battle with one of a well-known radical Belgian theologian, in which Father Ratzinger more than held his own. "Edward Schillebeeckx came to Tübingen to lecture on the relationship of theology to the Church Magisterium," Professor Mieth said. Afterward, there was a panel discussion.
"Küng described the future of a reformed church," Professor Mieth said, "and Joseph Ratzinger said nothing at all. He just sat on the left side of the podium and remained silent. Then somebody in the audience stood up and asked Ratzinger, 'What is in your mind about these questions?' so Ratzinger was forced to say something."
"He issued a massive critique of what his colleagues had said," Professor Mieth said. "He was indirect. He didn't say that what the others said was nonsense. He was very informed about the history of theology and church, and he provided a lot of quotations that he knew by heart by a lot of people, like Hegel and Schelling and others to make his point that the position of his colleagues represented a simplification."
Professor Seckler said an intellectual debate played to his strengths. "There was a special problem with Ratzinger," he said. "He's very good, very strong in an argument, in discussion, but when he is confronted by vulgar aggression, he doesn't know how to handle it. The students felt this and saw it as his weak point."
Professor Mieth said he felt that after 1970, Father Ratzinger's books became "more and more filled with resentment."
A Champion of Dialogue
But others who know his theology argue that while Cardinal Ratzinger may have deepened his belief in the need for a kind of absolute authority of the church, he was not conservative. Rather, they say, he was a consistent believer in his view of the reforms that were developed by the Second Vatican Council.
As chief adviser to Pope John Paul II, he may have been an enforcer of orthodoxy in doctrinal matters, but he championed dialogue with Jews and Muslims and played a major role in John Paul's celebrated admissions of church error.
"When you read his books, you can see that he writes at the highest level of theology," said Karl-Joseph Hummel, director of research at the Commission for Contemporary History in Bonn. "He looks at politics as ethics; he looks at literature, and the whole of human possibilities, and I don't think he's narrow."
Cardinal Ratzinger's writings, which are full of intellectual nuance and shadings of meaning, show a ready acknowledgement of the changes in the church's positions over the years -for example, turning away from the idea that it is a sin to enjoy sex, or that woman are inferior. But his efforts to place greater control on national bishop's conferences - to prohibit their issuing of doctrinal opinions without Rome's authority - reflect a belief that, any change in the church had to come not from below but from the unquestioned authority above.
"It is said that he had a shock and he became a conservative, but this is not true," Professor Seckler said. "He didn't become a conservative, but he understood that every reform brings out a bad spirit as well as a good spirit and that he needed to be more discriminating, that he had been naïve in his way of thinking."
The caution drew on his childhood in the fervently Catholic villages of Bavaria, where he saw Nazism firsthand. He attended a state-run school in Traunstein, which had Nazi teachers, but boarded at a church-run institution, St. Michael, where students lived in a seminary-like setting, under the tutelage of priests.
For a shy, bookish boy whose father was resolutely anti-Nazi, according to his elder brother, Georg, the church was a haven from Nazi propaganda. Both boys became priests. The church gave them educations, and, perhaps not incidentally, improved their social status.
"This was the family of a poor policeman in a Bavarian village, with extremely gifted children," said Professor Obermair. The church was their ticket to social, intellectual, and even cultural advancement.
Supporters and critics alike maintain that Joseph Ratzinger rarely allows doctrinal differences to become personal. Like others with whom he differed on theological grounds, Professor Küng said he always had a civil relationship with him, even after Cardinal Ratzinger criticized him and he was barred from teaching theology at a Catholic institution. The two men even met occasionally in Bavaria during the cardinal's summer break.
"I will not speak badly of him as a person," Professor Küng said. "He has always regarded me a Christian. But in theological terms, we are quite different. He was defending the old paradigm of the medieval church. I was defending the postmodern paradigm."
After he went to the Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger invited Professor Obermair to a 70th-birthday party, held in the bishop's residence in Regensburg, even though he had been among the conservatives who had opposed Professor Obermair's election as university president. The cardinal saw to it that the professor was seated at his table.
During dinner, Professor Obermair recalled, there was a freewheeling conversation. "As we talked," he said, "he expressed doubts about whether everything had gone right with the return to traditional values."
But his qualms did not mean his views about the 1960's had mellowed. The cardinal fixed his old nemesis with a wry gaze and said, "Your Marxist revolution has come to nothing."
Taking Ideas to Rome
His disgust at Nazism and his horror at the student upheaval - shaped by his readings of Saints Augustine and Bonaventure, and of Plato - formed the basis of the thinking he took to the Vatican in 1981: the idea that freedom flows from moral and doctrinal certainty. But so important to him was protecting the church as a fortress of moral authority that he said theologians must adhere to church teaching even if it is not infallible. In his "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" of 1990, he ruled that dissenters must not try to sway public opinion because open criticism hurts the church.
But he was also concerned for the society outside the church. For instance, during a speech to an anti-abortion convention in 1986, he said legalized abortion implied that "It is force that establishes right and thus, inadvertently for the many, the very bases of any authentic democracy are threatened."
In a book-length interview published in 1985 titled "The Ratzinger Report," he used a rigorously argued line of reasoning to support a doctrinal position that reverberates outside the church. He condemned abortion, contraception, homosexual relations, sex without marriage, "radical feminism" and transsexuality. The wrongness of those ideas all arise from the separation of sexuality from motherhood and marriage, he said. That leads to procreation without sexuality and "biological manipulation" of births that "uncouples man from nature," he said. People then become just another product in the world.
"It logically follows from the consequences of a sexuality which is no longer linked to motherhood and to procreation," he said, "that every form of sexuality is equivalent and therefore of equal worth." It is only logical, then, that self-gratification becomes the point of sex. And it follows that all forms of sex - including homosexual - become equal and considered "rights."
His rulings came flowing out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, carefully footnoted and, to critics, repressive and intolerant. Liberation theology of the 1980's, in which leftist clerics in Latin America argued for radical change in society to help the poor, was quashed. Bishops were chastised for straying, like Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle over his tolerant views on homosexuals. More than a dozen theologians, priests and bishops were punished for doctrinal error, and presumably, many other cases have not come to light. In 2000, he published a condemnation of the concept that other religions might be as valid as Catholicism.
'The Strength of Reason'
But interviews with some of the dozens of people who worked for Cardinal Ratzinger at the congregation offered a portrait of a man with a style that mitigated his firmness. He is collegial, they said, a patient listener with an orderly mind. He keeps a clean desk.
At the congregation, he was flexible when it came to strategy, but not doctrine, said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the fourth highest ranking official there. "He used reason, not the reason of the strong, but the strength of reason," he said. "He was willing to go with the best idea."
Cardinal Ratzinger, in a sense, occupied a lonely position at the Vatican. He certainly had the pope's ear, more than most, and he commanded the loyalty of his staff. But unlike other major Vatican departments, his was not a source of patronage. He rarely celebrated major public Masses and was not one of John Paul's frequent traveling companions.
In 1991, Cardinal Ratzinger lost one of his main companions: his sister, Maria, an intellectually accomplished and strong-minded woman who had devoted much of her life to caring for him, died fairly suddenly, acquaintances said.
But his work was absorbing. On Wednesdays, he met with other cardinals in the congregation, beginning the sessions with 20- to 30-minute theological speeches, said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the archbishop of Genoa and secretary of the congregation from 1995 to 2003. Cardinal Bertone described the talks as "gems." Each cardinal would then give his thoughts, and Cardinal Ratzinger would bring the opinions to the pope, Cardinal Bertone said.
"He wanted a range of opinions, and anyone else who had something to say, could," Cardinal Bertone said. "So at the end you had a very thick mass of opinions."
The full staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met Friday. "I felt entrusted and respected so much that I could speak freely," Monsignor Scicluna said. "He used to quote St. Benedict, saying we should start listening to the junior people." He would then work his way up through the ranks of officials.
Professor Seckler, from the Tübingen days, said he thought Pope Benedict XVI would surprise people.
"He is a man of great inner freedom," he said, "but he spent the last 23 years in Rome as prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith, and his role was to protect the structure and the beliefs of the church.
"Once, about 10 years ago when I was visiting him in Rome, he told me, 'I have my personal sense of freedom, my sympathy for freedom. I have to keep it to myself. I have to obey the pope. The pope told me that it is my biggest religious obligation not to have my own opinions.'
"Ratzinger told me this after I hadn't seen him in a long time and he felt the need to explain to me why he is so strict," Professor Seckler continued. "He said very seriously, 'I understand the obligations of my office in the sense of a religious obedience to the pope.' "
Richard Bernstein reported from Tübingen for this article, Daniel J. Wakin from Vatican City and Mark Landler from Regensburg, Germany. Elisabetta Povoledo of The International Herald Tribune and Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome.