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Pope Benedict XVI a wedge or a unifier?

As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith,  Benedict XVI was the Vatican’s iron hand. Now, as pope, he could be a wedge or a unifier.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger bids farewell to Bavarian believers in Munich on Feb. 28, 1982, when he left Germany to head the Congregation of Faith in the Vatican.Diether Endlicher / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two images of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stood in sharp relief during the mourning period for the pope he would eventually succeed.

With his wispy silver hair blowing in the wind, the German prelate stood before the world’s political and spiritual leaders at John Paul II’s funeral April 8 and offered an eloquent, sensitive farewell that moved some to tears.

Ten days later — just before Ratzinger and 114 other cardinals entered the conclave to select the 265th pontiff — he delivered a sharp-edged homily on strict obedience to church teachings that left liberal Catholics wincing.

“He could be a wedge rather than a unifier for the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America.

Applause — and stunned silence
This was clear in S. Peter’s Square moments after the announcement of Ratzinger’s election and the name chosen by the first Germanic pope in 1,000 years: Benedict XVI. Amid the applause were groans and pockets of stunned silence.

“It’s Ratzinger,” French pilgrim Silvie Genthial, 52, barked into her cellular phone before hanging up.

“We were all hoping for a different pope — a Latin American perhaps — but not an ultraconservative like this,” she said.

But others hugged and toasted the new pope with red wine. “A clear and true voice of faith,” said Maria Piscini, an 80-year-old Italian grandmother, raising a paper cup filled with pinot noir.

The cardinals who selected him knew it would be received this way.

Perhaps no member of the conclave evoked such potent opinions — and has stirred more arguments — as the 78-year-old Ratzinger and the role he’s held since 1981: head of the powerful Vatican office that oversees doctrine and takes action against dissent.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said Monday in a pre-conclave Mass in memory of John Paul. The church, he insisted, must defend itself against threats such as “radical individualism” and “vague religious mysticism.”

As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he was the Vatican’s iron hand.

No flexibility shown on priestly celibacy, other issues
His interventions are a roll call of flashpoints for the church: the 1987 order stripping American theologian the Rev. Charles Curran of the right to teach because he encouraged dissent; crippling Latin Americans supporting the popular “liberation theology” movement for alleged Marxist leanings; coming down hard on efforts to rewrite Scriptures in gender inclusive language.

He also shows no flexibility on the church’s views on priestly celibacy, contraception and the ban on ordinations for women.

In 1986, he denounced rock music as the “vehicle of anti-religion.” In 1988, he dismissed anyone who tried to find “feminist” meanings in the Bible. Last year, he told American bishops that it was allowable to deny Communion to those who support such “manifest grave sin” as abortion and euthanasia.

'Smackdown on heresy'
He earned unflattering nicknames such as Panzercardinal, God’s rottweiler, and the Grand Inquisitor. Cartoonists emphasized his deep-set eyes and Italians lampooned his pronounced German accent.

“Indeed, it would be hard to find a Catholic controversy in the past 20 years that did not somehow involve Joseph Ratzinger,” John Allen, a Vatican reporter for the National Catholic Register, wrote six years ago.

But among conservatives, he rose in stature. An online fan club sings his praises and offers souvenirs with the slogan: “Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981.”

Even John Paul apparently needed him close by. Several times Ratzinger said he tendered his resignation because of his age, but each time it was rejected by the pope.

Predictions of a polarized church
In recent years, he took on issues outside church doctrine. He once called Buddhism a religion for the self-indulgent. In an interview with the French magazine Le Figaro last year, he suggested Turkey’s bid to join the Europe Union conflicted with Europe’s Christian roots — a view that could unsettle Vatican attempts to improve relations with Muslims.

“Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe,” he was quoted as saying.

In a book released last week, “Values in a Time of Upheavals,” Ratzinger also called demands for European “multiculturalism” as a “fleeing from what is one’s own.”

“If he continues as pope the way he was as a cardinal, I think we will see a polarized church,” said David Gibson, a former Vatican Radio journalist and author of a book on trends in the church. “He has said himself that he wanted a smaller, but purer, church.”

Forged by the horrors of World War II
Critics complain Ratzinger embodies all the conservative instincts of the last papacy, but without John Paul’s charisma and pastoral genius.

“I think this is the closest the church can come to human cloning,” quipped Gibson.

It’s a joke not too far off the mark.

Both John Paul II and his successor were forged by the horrors of World War II and advanced in the church in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. They also shared a deep drive to try to use Christianity as a grand unifier for the continent following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

But the Polish pontiff came from a nation that suffered greatly during the war. Ratzinger — like many from his generation — carries the burdens and ghosts of Germany’s past.

Raised in the oak forest and pine foothills of Bavaria, he said he was enrolled in Hitler’s Nazi youth movement against his will. At the same time, the policeman’s son entered seminary studies in 1939 as a 12-year-old with “joy and great expectations,” according to his memoirs.

He recalled being deeply moved by the rituals of the church, such as candlelight services and midnight Mass.

Priesthood saved pope from SS
But in 1943, he was drafted as an assistant to a Nazi anti-aircraft unit in Munich. Later, he was shipped off to build tank barriers at the Austian-Hungarian border. He wrote that he escaped recruitment by the dreaded SS because he and others said they were training to be priests.

“We were sent out with mockery and verbal abuse,” he wrote. “But these insults tasted wonderful because they freed us from the threat of that deceitful ‘voluntary service’ and all its consequences.”

He deserted in April 1945 and returned home to Traunstein. It was a risky move, since deserters were shot or hanged. But the Third Reich was collapsing.

“The Americans finally arrived in our village,” he wrote. “Even though our house lacked all comfort, they chose it as their headquarters.”

Ratzinger was identified as a deserter and placed in prisoner of war camp near Ulm in southern Germany. He wrote that he could see the spires of the city’s cathedral in the distance.

“It was, for me, like a consoling proclamation of the indescribable humaneness of faith,” he wrote.

He and his older brother, Georg, were ordained in 1951. He taught theology and earned a reputation as a forward-looking prelate and took part in the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, a major attempt to modernize the faith.

His doctoral dissertation on the medieval theologian St. Bonaventure tried to draw attention to “dangerous relativism” — a message that he echoed at Mass on Monday.

He also tried to combine his belief in Christianity’s ecumenical message with his views on the special role of Judaism.

A theologian and an intellectual
“That the Jews are connected with God in a special way and that God does not want that bond to fail is entirely obvious,” he wrote in his book, “God and the World,” published in 2000. “We wait for the instant in which Israel will say ‘yes’ to Christ, but we know that it has a special mission in history now.”

“First and foremost, he’s a theologian. He’s an intellectual,” said the Rev. Martin Bialas, who has known Ratzinger for 35 years and was his student. “By nature, he’s someone who prefers to stay in the background.”

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed bishop of Munich and elevated to cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI. He was one of only two cardinals in the latest conclave that was not chosen by John Paul.

The name he took — Benedict — draws a connection to Benedict XV, the Italian pontiff from 1914 to 1922 who had the difficult task of providing leadership for Catholic countries on opposite sides of World War I. His declared neutrality, and his repeated protests against weapons like poison gas angered both sides.

For reformers, 'enormous disappointment'
Benedict was also known for reaching out to Muslims and for efforts to close the nearly 1,000-year estrangement with Christian Orthodox churches — a possible signal that this could be an important priority of the new papacy.

“The name Benedict XVI leaves the possibility open for a more moderate policy,” said the Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, whose license to teach theology was revoked by the Vatican in 1979. “Let us, therefore, give him a chance. As with the president of the USA, we should allow a new pope 100 days to learn.”

But Kueng already has formed his judgment: “An enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope.”

His first major test could be in August in his homeland. World Youth Day — a favorite event of John Paul — is scheduled in the city of Cologne and is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of young Catholics.

“Pope John Paul II always said that we must have a new beginning, a new evangelization of Europe that will plant the seeds of belief in the hearts of people again,” said Philip Hockerts, spokesman for the Regensburg diocese in southern Germany. “It could well be that (Benedict XVI) wants to carry forth this new evangelizing.”