Western People 10.1.2023
There are stand-out moments in life that are forever embedded in memory: personal events like the deaths of those we love; notable historical events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and noteworthy happenings that in time assume a particular significance. In the latter category for me was the election in 2005 of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
At the time I was watching television with a friend in Kilglass in Sligo when the traditional white smoke billowing out of the conclave in Rome indicated that a new pope had been elected. We waited for the name to be announced.
My friend asked who would I like to be pope. I didn’t know, I said, but I knew who I didn’t want to be pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In a matter of minutes, the announcement was made – Cardinal Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI.
It was the equivalent of being winded. A nightmare scenario unfolding itself amid the traditional cheers and the pealing bells in St Peter’s Square.
But let me go back a bit. It’s the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council is in full swing. At the heart of it is a young German theologian, Fr Joseph Ratzinger, an adviser to the German bishops, enthusiastically cheering on the reforms that could transform the Catholic Church in the decades and centuries ahead. After a long winter of discontent, at long last, hope for a new and different Church had arrived. And no one appeared more excited about it than Joseph Ratzinger.
A clear indication of his position was a speech he is believed to have ‘ghost written’ severely criticizing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome, the Vatican department responsible for defending the faith. As the eminent Jesuit commentator, Fr Thomas Reese, wrote recently, Ratzinger called its methods of silencing prominent theologians prior to the council ‘a source of scandal to the world.’
But history was to take a strange turn. In 1966, Ratzinger was professor at the University of Tübingen, a progressive institution very much in line with his open views. However, as John Allen relates in his biography of Ratzinger, student demonstrations psyched him and the trauma he experienced provoked a return to more orthodox Catholic theology, a move represented by his abandoning Tubingen for the more conservative University of Regensburg.
There was, it seems, on Ratzinger’s part, a gradual avoidance of more open theological debate and a withdrawal from the cut and thrust of academic conferences. His new preference for a more traditional approach was represented by a gathering of docile former students who met with him periodically to discuss theological issues. Ratzinger effectively retired himself from open debate.
In 1977, he was appointed archbishop of Munich and in 1981 Pope John Paul appointed him prefect of the CDF, the Vatican body he had once so emphatically criticized as ‘a source of scandal to the world.’ However, his time there (1981-2005) was marked by a continuation of the traditional rigid regime where theologians were disciplined, those deemed unorthodox were removed from their posts and refused permission to publish and those deemed ‘suspect’ were not appointed bishops. Thomas Reese (mentioned earlier) was forced to resign as editor of America magazine at Ratzinger’s insistence and the robust policy of the CDF that he bequeathed to his successors in the CDF was responsible in time for the unjust silencing of Fr Tony Flannery and the unfair disciplining of Frs Brian D’Arcy, Gerard Maloney, Iggy O’Donovan and Owen O’Sullivan – priests who had given lifetimes of service to the Catholic Church but whom the CDF deemed a danger to the faith! Anyone who had anything worthwhile to say about the ordination of women or clerical celibacy was deemed anathema.
The policy of suppressing theological debate under Pope John Paul was continued under Benedict XVI, the expected reforms of Vatican Two were ‘reformed’ (in what was called ‘a reform of the (Vatican Two) reform’) as the restoration of the old blocked the introduction of the new. One step forward and two steps back.
The twin pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI amounted to a telling set-back for the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council represented the promise of responding to the many challenges the Church faced of finding a new language for a modern world as old thinking and tired formulas simply helped to alienate those on the margins. John Paul tried to close off any future possibility of ordaining women; Benedict described homosexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’. An effort was made to reinstate the Latin Mass – which was later deemed as a cover for generating opposition to Vatican Two. If this was the future, it meant that more and more would walk away – and, sadly but understandably, they have.
So back to Kilglass on April 19, 2005 and that Habemus Papam (‘We have a pope’) moment when Benedict XVI was elected. A highly intelligent man, a gifted theologian, a humble and devoted servant of the Church, what could possibly go wrong – apart from the fact that he was the wrong man or possibly the right man at the wrong time.
Most people knew that and clearly he knew that himself when, in 2013, he retired to be replaced by Pope Francis 1, his opposite in almost every sense. The cardinals had made some recompense for their 2005 choice. The Catholic Church, they seemed to be saying, needed someone who listened to the people rather than telling them what to do, someone to lead us forward into a difficult future rather than back to a receding past, someone who realised that even though the old church is dying responding to that challenge means welcoming the new. New wineskins. There is no other way.
May Benedict XVI rest in peace.