Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
He is Pope John Paul II’s sidekick, his confidante and his enforcer. But when the fading Polish prelate meets his maker in the not-too-distant future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger may also be next in line to become the world’s top Roman Catholic, the corporal representative of God’s word on Earth. And that should give us all pause, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Currently the suave, white-haired German Cardinal runs the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This august organization is occasionally referred to as the Holy Office but it is perhaps best known by an older name – the Inquisition. You history buffs will remember the Inquisition: those Catholic zealots who in the Middle Ages couldn’t abide apostates and doubters of the One True Faith. They perfected the use of thumbscrews and the rack to force Jews, Muslims and other dissenters to adopt the Vatican’s more ‘accurate’ understanding of Christianity.
Though he may be next in line for St Peter’s throne, Joe Ratzinger is no spring chicken. He was born in Bavaria in 1927 so is only six years younger than John Paul II. However, he shows few signs of slowing down. He has been the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer since 1981 and is a recondite intellectual, fluent in four languages. His intellectual searching began as a seminarian in Nazi Germany where he rounded out the experience with a brief fling in the Hitler Youth, though he was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was later conscripted into the German Army from which he eventually deserted before ending the war as an American POW.
After completing his doctorate on St Augustine in 1953 he made the rounds as a professor of ‘systematic theology’ before ascending to the position of Archbishop of Munich in 1977. From there John Paul II invited him to Rome, where he took up residence in 1981.
Once settled he was quick to make a mark with his old-fashioned dogmatism and conservative values. He was particularly upset by what he saw as destructive, liberalizing influences unleashed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). These ‘wild excesses’ extended to the introduction of a non-Latin Mass after Vatican II which Ratzinger characterized as a ‘tragic breach’ in tradition. But the Cardinal’s discomfort with modern life and yearning for the good old days also extended to the social realm, especially into the areas of gay rights and women.
In 1986 Ratzinger issued a letter to the Catholic Bishops in which he wrote that homosexuality was a ‘tendency’ towards an ‘intrinsic moral evil’. A few years later, in 1992, he rejected the notion of human rights for gays, stressing that their civil liberties could be ‘legitimately limited’. He followed up by remarking that ‘neither the church nor society should be surprised’ if ‘irrational and violent reactions increase’ when gays demand civil rights. Not a man to mince his words, Ratzinger urgently set to work to ferret out gay-sensitive clergy.
The good Cardinal also extended the Papal principle of ‘infallibility’ by declaring that the ordination of women was impossible because John Paul II said it was so. Ditto for the use of the word ‘priest’ by the Anglican Church: not on, said Joe, because Leo XIII in 1896 said it wasn’t allowed.
The Cardinal is also not happy mixing religion and politics – at least not the kind of politics which suggests the Church has an obligation to assist the poor in their fight for justice. So he set out to muzzle outspoken ‘liberation’ theologians including Brazil’s charismatic Leonardo Boff. He also replaced the now-deceased Archbishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara, with Monsignor José Cardosa – a conservative right-winger – and warned the ex-Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico, Samuel Ruiz, to preach the Gospel ‘in its integrity without Marxist interpretations’.
As if that weren’t enough, the ever-busy Cardinal has used his privileged take on the Truth to set back inter-faith tolerance and religious pluralism a few decades. In 1997 Ratzinger annoyed Buddhists by calling their religion an ‘autoerotic spirituality’ that offers ‘transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations’. And Hinduism, he said, offers ‘false hope’; it guarantees ‘purification’ based on a ‘morally cruel’ concept of reincarnation resembling ‘a continuous circle of hell’. The Cardinal predicted Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic Church’s main enemy this century.
So keep your eyes on those chimney pots when the contest for the next Pope begins. If Joe Ratzinger gets the nod progressive voices inside the Catholic Church will have an even harder time being heard. And it could happen. As Ratzinger himself has said: ‘No-one expected the present Pope to be elected either.’
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