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Cardinal Sins

On Joseph Ratzinger

For three centuries after his first appearance, the Grand Inquisitor was portrayed by Protestant and Enlightenment critics alike as a figure of unmitigated evil. It took Dostoyevsky to make him interesting.

"Know that I, too, was in the wilderness, that I, too, fed upon locusts and roots, that I, too, blessed freedom," is the Inquisitor's reproach to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov. "But I woke up and refused to serve madness." Jesus' madness had been to give men salvation without also giving them the strength to choose it. The Inquisitor, in contrast, had taken away men's freedom, by terror, and thereby ensured their salvation. The price in this neat, heretical solution was paid by the Inquisitor himself. In Dostoyevsky's story, the very process of terrorizing had sapped the Inquisitor's own faith. Once a saintly hermit, he finally found himself unable to retain belief in the doctrine he was imposing. Power had destroyed it.

The life and work of Joseph Ratzinger would no doubt have interested Dostoyevsky. Once a radical theologian concerned above all with the liberation offered by Christ, Ratzinger is now the Vatican's chief imposer of theological obedience. Formerly a minor official at the Second Vatican Council and an intellectual disciple of Hans Küng, he is now John Paul II's closest confidant and Küng's judge, in the Western Hemisphere, it was Ratzinger who was behind the demotion of Archbishop Raymond.

Hunthausen of Seattle, the firing of Father Charles Curran of Washington's Catholic University, and the 11-month silencing of liberation theologian Friar Leonardo Boff. Ratzinger was also directly or indirectly responsible for the most recent papal positions on in vitro fertilization, homosexuality, liberation theology, and the encyclical on East-West conflict, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. After John Paul II himself, there are few more significant figures in the Catholic Church.

Who is he? Six years after Ratzinger's appointment to the Prefecture, we are only beginning to find out. His office—he is prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—explains something. When it was originally created in 1588, it was called the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. As Edward Peters points out in his comprehensive survey of the history and mythology of the office, this may not be as damning as it sounds. Its historic role has been both to promote good doctrine and to protect the Church from heresy. Since 1588 it has wielded none of the power its mythologizers have claimed for it. In its supposed heyday—the 15th through 17th centuries—it was, in fact, extremely weak.

Set up after inquisitions were already under way in Rome, it was not responsible for the autonomous inquisitions in Spain, Portugal, and Venice, conducted by semi-independent papal appointees and local authorities, (The Spanish Inquisition, for example, was specifically requested by Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain in 1478 and was then incorporated within the Spanish state.) The Holy Office's real power diminished further through the 18th century, when it became an adjunct to the Index, the Vatican's official censor. In 1799 the Inquisition was actually abolished, only to be revived 15 years later with a writ more limited than ever to the papal states.

Italian nationalism restrained the Holy Office in the late 19th century. But as liberal, anti-clerical governments in Europe put pressure on independent churches, the attractions of a stronger, defensive link with Rome grew. In response, the Holy Office took on a new vigor. It merged with the Index in 1917 and became the chief theological adviser to the pope, who was now officially infallible, (Ex cathedra statements were pronounced infallible in 1870.) In 1965 the Second Vatican Council abolished the Index but retained and revamped the Holy Office as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while increasing the autonomy of the various national councils of bishops.

It is an ambiguous history, then; and one of the ironies is that it took the 20th century to produce a Roman Inquisition with universal clout. The decline of religious-based national politics has had the effect of strengthening transnational religious institutions. The explosion of Catholicism around the globe in the 20th century has actually increased the need for a more powerful center of doctrine. Joseph Ratzinger has felt few qualms, at least recently, about providing it.

Ratzinger grew up the son of a policeman in Hitler's Bavaria. Before becoming the pope's policeman, Ratzinger was a professional theologian. He was ordained in 1954 in the diocese of Munich and became a lecturer in dogmatics at Munster, Tubingen, and Regensburg, and a founder-member of the progressive theological periodical Concilium. An official at the Second Vatican Council and a keen defender of its reforms, he was made cardinal archbishop of Munich in 1977.

It was a fitting appointment. His training was rooted in the Bavarian tradition, which is to say, it was heavily influenced by Augustine, Augustine's emphasis on the weakness of fallen man, the necessity for divine grace, a distance from worldliness, and ahealthy distrust of human reason and nature are central, of course, to German Protestantism—but to much of German Catholicism as well. Ratzinger, whose dissertation was about Augustine, was no exception. A particular influence was Johann Sailer, a Romantic theologian of the post-Enlightenment Catholic revival in Germany, His mid-19th-century concerns, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, make interesting reading: "externalism, contempt for Christian mysticism, worldliness of the clergy, degradation of the pulpit by the treatment of secular topics, relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline, denial of the primacy of papal jurisdiction, efforts of the State to gain control of the Church, turbulent reforms within the Church, and a one-sided training of the mind in education." Over a century later, it would be difficult to find a more concise summary of Ratzinger's own priorities.

The great merit of Aidan Nichols's dense, scholarly study of Ratzinger's theology is that it places Ratzinger in the context and language of this abiding, Germanic Augustinianism, It is an emphasis that manages to cut through the usual, unhelpful categories of left and right, progressive and reactionary, to focus on the arguments of the Church rather than the preoccupations of the world, Ratzinger's central conviction (and it runs from his earliest to his most recent writings) is that men are too weak to generate their own meaning or salvation. Both have to be received. Both, rather, have been received—in a particular historical moment: the incarnation of God.

The awe at the spirit of God made flesh in Jesus permeates all Ratzinger's work, and indeed his attitude to theology as such. Theology is the elucidation and deepening of what has already been revealed, rather than the quest to discover what we do not yet know. The model is not the philosopher who receives nothing, but the saint who has received too much—less Descartes than Mary, "who humbly opened herself, like a glass that receives God's dark mystery." That does not mean that revealed truth cannot be deepened, even occasionally by the insights of error. In his Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure Ratzinger writes: "Revelatio refers not to the letter of scripture, but to the understanding of the letter. And that understanding can be increased." But it does mean that the source of all Christian wisdom is God, not man.

Self-realization for the Christian comes "not through what he does, but through what he accepts." The New Testament is a "matter of announcing to man the unthinkable, novel, free Act of God, something which cannot be drawn up out of the mental depths of man, because it announces God's unreckonable, gracious decision." In the liturgy, what is distinctive "does not come from what we do but from the fact that something is taking place here that all of us together cannot 'make,' " Ratzinger says at one point to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in the conversation published as The Ratzinger Report: "The Church is not our Church, which we could dispose of as we please. She is, rather. His Church."

This is the essential basis for Ratzinger's "authoritarianism." He believes in an inalienable truth, wedded to an institution, cemented in a moment of history. The extraordinary nature of revelation suggests that it cannot be tampered with, least of all from below. And the tragic, passive view Ratzinger holds of human nature—more in tune with Lutheranism than with traditional Catholicism—lies behind his radical lack of faith in the goodness of fallen man, and so underpins the severity of his discipline. But the Augustinian notion of grace is also at the core of his "radicalism." The redemption, when received, is of a complete, transcendent, almost mystical nature.

The great contrast usually drawn between the young "liberal" Ratzinger and the old "conservative" Ratzinger tends to miss this point. These phases represent two sides of the same Augustinian coin. In his "liberal" period, Ratzinger's inspiration was always a transcendent understanding of divine, a historical grace at work upon the Church. That was the core of his defense of the Second Vatican Council's reappraisal of tradition. As a founder of Concilium, he was a firm champion of the reformed liturgy, the new use of the vernacular, the revived emphasis on scripture, the elevation of the episcopate vis-a-vis the papacy, and communion in both bread and wine. He saw much of this as a cleansing of the historical encumbrances of the 19th and 20th centuries to let in a fresher, purer ecclesiastical air. His enthusiasm, for example, for the Catholic rediscovery of the historical Jesus and of scripture is clear:

It breathes the "smell of the earth" of the land of the patriarchs; the unmistakable tone in which the prophets talked. . . . It gives us the voice of Jesus Christ—in the striking Aramaic phrases that were handed down untranslated; we hear him speak his native language; we meet him across the gulf of centuries, as he lived, a man among men.

Together with this is a sense of liberation from earthly bonds that a revived Catholicism could generate. In his 1960 Christian Brotherhood, he writes: "Themystery of Christ is the mystery of the removal of barriers-" He refers to the barriers of nationalism, class, and the reluctance of the Church to confront the

world, in that order- In his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger writes of the timeless gift Christ extends to the world: "After the lance-thrust that ends his earthly life, his existence is completely open; now he is entirely 'for': the beginning of a new definitive community of men with one another."

A passion for this liberating, transcendent community explains his otherwise mystifying enthusiasm for so much of modern Catholicism that other Church "conservatives" find distasteful, Ratzinger hails what he sees as the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit in the practice (if not some of the theology) of the revivalist Christianity of the Third World, in the charismatic movement throughout the Church, and in the anti-Marxist, Christian preference for the poor adopted by most priests and laity in South America, Africa, and Asia, He argues for the incorporation of many Third World practices into Western faith. He favors Asian and black music as a new focus for liturgical expression. And Ratzinger describes these developments not as the achievement of men, but as the work of God, These views were expressed again in The Ratzinger Report.

Ratzinger's hostility to the politicization of religion—from Marxist liberation theology to the Catholic capitalists of the American right—is also based on his view that being apolitical is Christianity's authentic political stance. With Augustine, he holds that otherworldliness released the "inner freedom which enabled the martyrs to counterpoise the conviction of faith to State authority, the interior power of truth to the external power of earthly force." This does not mean that he advocates complete withdrawal, but rather a stance of opposition to the world, a stance that is necessarily political, but only incidentally so.

Hence, for example, his attitude to the 1960s, an attitude that sharply distinguishes him from his political neoconservative acolytes, Ratzinger argues in Church, Ecumenism and Politics that theradical resurrection of concern with the "origin and purpose of the whole" of creation that typified the '60s was essentially a step forward; insofar as it scorned shallow materialism. His serious argument with the '60s is only with its political solution, with Marxism, which he accords a deeper philosophical respect than many of its smug opponents- Ratzinger answers it with the transcendent radicalism of a purified Church.

This apolitical Augustinianism is classically reflected in the recent encyclical on East and West. What mattered was not what each bloc had revealed about men in history, nor what prudence might indicate in choosing between the two. What mattered was simply revelation's judgment of the foundation of each: the atheism of the collective East and the materialism of the capitalist West, Politics was seen from the perspective of eternity. Naturally it enraged those who prefer to see eternity from the perspective of politics, William F. Buckley found time to read the New York Times summary and wrote an angry, anti-"moral equivalence" riposte, and (non-Catholic) columnist William Safire's deepest theological argument was to accuse the pope of being a "decade out of date on his geopolitics," In a sense, though, they were right- The politics was crude- It was supposed to be.

Otherworldliness, however, carries a decisive risk. It can lead to an alienation from the very world the Church needs to conquer. This other side of the Augustinian coin was the central worry of the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger's interpretation of the Council's mission of renewal differs from more conventional understandings. Whereas Ratzinger sees the Council as a "recentering" of the Church from the standpoint of transcendent truth (a peculiarly Augustinian approach), many of its actual participants saw it as an opening to the world as it then existed, a learning from the world, an interpretation of divine grace at work through history (essentially a Thomist understanding). It is important, perhaps, that Ratzinger, as a minor official, never participated, as only a bishop could, in the collective spiritual guardianship—and experience—of that event. John Paul II did. The most telling difference between the pope and the prefect is John Paul II's more successful blend of Augustinian otherworldliness and Thomist trust. His admonitions, while increasingly firm, have never lacked the compassion and optimism that ally themselves with a countervailing confidence in God's will working its way through nature. Ratzinger is altogether a more jaundiced figure.

By interpreting the Council his way, and by maintaining a continuity between the Augustinianism of his early and later career, Ratzinger rallies a powerful defense of the case that "it is not I who have changed, but others." But he has missed perhaps a central paradox in his own theology. His bleakness, while theologically a way in which the extremity of grace can be radically described, is—once in power—a recipe for authoritarianism. The same view that holds that man is hopeless and needs the mystery of God holds that man is hopeless and needs the discipline of authority. For these reasons, the elevation of Ratzinger to the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a particularly fateful decision. The very same theology that could describe the mystery of God, His unknowability, His radical gift of grace, could be used to justify the lack of any trust in the work of the Church below, and the necessity to maintain absolute conformity to the mysterious dictates received from above. What Ratzinger's elevation unleashed—the wild card in Ratzinger's development—was the factor of power. His theology did not change. But its new context was to transform the purity of its intent.

 The Dostoyevskian ironies are acute, and they are getting sharper. The theologian who stressed the apolitical as Christians' first resort has become an official who has sacrificed theological argument for political coercion and control. The otherworldly cleric has become the first prefect to give an extended, published interview to the international press [The Ratzinger Report). The thinker who wroteabove ail about the central conceptions of the faith, of the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Last Things, of the core truths of Christianity, has begun to show signs of a creeping obsession with sex, and concern with the passing phenomena of a secular agenda.

With Ratzinger’s elevation, the case against him has most often been viewed in the Western press as the case for democracy against authoritarianism in the Church. It is perhaps worth stating that nothing could be further from the truth. The Church is not a democracy and could not possibly be so. A democracy is founded upon the primacy of individual rights, in which the public good—itself the creation of the individuals who debate it—is an entity that may change. The truths of the Church are given, not created, are unchanging, not malleable, are vested in authority, not in individuals. So long as this is the debate between Ratzinger and his critics, Ratzinger deserves to win.

Where the argument really starts—and it is a complicated one—is in the scope of Rome's teaching authority, or magisterium. The First Vatican Council's establishment of papal infallibility ascribed to the pope the powers always ascribed to the college of bishops and the pope together: "infallibility in faith and morals." But it did so in extremely prescribed cases: ex cathedra pronouncements, of which there have been two in history, both dealing with uncontroversial doctrines. The scope of Rome's authority, outside these pronouncements (and none of Ratzinger's initiatives have taken this form), is therefore still in some doubt.

But even if we assume that Rome has complete authority "in faith and morals" outside of ex cathedra pronouncements, the Church has never authoritatively claimed the right to dictate the particular moral decisions of individuals within the church. There, conscience, under pastoral guidance, has to be left to work. For example, while the Church might say that anger is always wrong, there may be circumstances in which it can be excused, mitigated, or even can lead to some good: the anger directed at a criminal, or at violence, or at oppression. The judgment of these cases must be on an individual basis. So, too, in theology. There is a difference between the rejection of Church doctrine outright and the obedient questioning of the reasoning of doctrine in particular cases. The Church has historically defended this space for those obediently attempting to live Christian lives. This "freedom" does not deny the authority of the Church. It merely recognizes that moral and theological wisdom has to be worked out in individual lives, with their complexities and compromises.

Ratzinger the theologian accepts the tension. In his 1975 Principles of Christian Morality, he writes that Christ "linked admission to the Kingdom of God and exclusion from it with fundamental moral decisions, which are consequences intimately related to the way God is conceived." But he has also defended individual space, even to the extent of suggesting that Christians' moral experience can inform Church doctrine. For example, he agrees that the Church's former teaching that sex is solely for procreation has now deepened to an understanding that it is also for personal development. That transition came from the experience of modern Christians in marriage, and from theology itself. Ratzinger has also written that the three major forces for the development of Church doctrine are the Christian and human experience of the Church at large, the work of scholars, and the "watchful attention, listening, and deciding undertaken by the teaching authority," in that order.

But Ratzinger’s latest forays suggest, alas, that once in power, he has begun to scorn what he once put at the forefront of the development of the Church: the ordinary moral experience of Christians.

Consider three cases. First, the role of women. Not women priests, but women in society. He describes them, in The Ratzinger Report, as the receptacles "of motherhood, of gratitude, of contemplation, of beauty." His challenge to women in the 1980s is to live up to the virtues of the Virgin Mary. In itself, that is hardly objectionable to a Catholic. But what is remarkable is how much is left out. No other avenue of achievement or self-fulfillment is countenanced. The implication is that there is nothing of value for the Christian view of women in the work, creativity, or independence that women in the West now partly enjoy. On the contrary, women have paid

the highest price to the new society and its values. . . . What is the woman to do when the roles inscribed in her biology have been denied and perhaps even ridiculed? If her wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth, solidarity has been replaced by the economistic and trade union mentality of the "profession," by this typical masculine concern?

Is Ratzinger really saying that any form of "professional" work is destructive of the "roles inscribed in [female] biology"? And does the massive moral experience of working women, who have also struggled to lead Catholic lives, have nothing to say to this judgment? Is "solace" incompatible with a mother who devotes herself in part to a world other than the family? Is love a capacity necessarily destroyed by work? Has Ratzinger any evidence to support such claims?

Second, on homosexuality. The Vatican's 1986 letter—which described gay men and women as victims of an "objective disorder"—was a radical break with all three elements originally discerned by Ratzinger: tradition, scholarship, and the moral experience of the Church. It took even conservatives by surprise. In 1975, for the first time in modernity, the (pre-Ratzinger) Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recognized that there was something called inherent homosexuality. Previously, there had only been homosexual acts, chosen by heterosexual people, which were invariably wrong. (The first condemnation of such acts was not made until 1179, at the Third Lateran Council, which also condemned moneylenders, heretics, Jews, Muslims, and mercenaries.) The Church's new position was that the state of homosexuality was not wrong, since it was involuntary, and sin has to be chosen. What was wrong, rather, was the chosen, genital expression of homosexuality. This may sound casuistic, but there are few other ways to accept the immorality of homosexual activity while showing compassion and understanding for homosexuals who also happen to be made in the image of God. The 1975 document was a model of such casuistic compassion.

Ratzinger's letter, in the middle of the AIDS crisis, was noticeable for its extraordinary lack of compassion. Nowhere in the document was it stated, along the lines of 1975, that homosexuality is not voluntarily acquired. Some of its clauses read chillingly like comparable Church documents produced in Europe in the 1930s. In a reference to violence and prejudice against homosexuals, it argued that if correct doctrines were not defended clearly, then "neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground." And its central point was to remove the moral neutrality of the state of homosexuality: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." What can this possibly mean, except that the condition is morally disordered?

The idea that the new perspective "finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences" is about as convincing as Ratzinger's obscure references to the "biological" roles of women. The biblical scholarship is also disappointing: the reference to Christ's mention of Sodom in Matthew suggests He was warning the disciples against sodomy, rather than warning the towns to which He sent them against inhospitality. It is hard to avoid the impression, especially given the supreme rigor of Ratzinger's own biblical and theological training, that the document was a political rather than a theological exercise.

Third, on the teaching authority of the Church as a whole, Ratzinger has pushed the necessity of precise obedience in a way that calls into question the space normally assigned to personal conscience. In matters of theological orthodoxy, he has attempted to enforce a uniformity that makes no distinction between disobedience and questioning obedience. On this point, the contrast between Ratzinger the policeman and Ratzinger the theologian is particularly sharp. Ratzinger's 1954 study of Augustine noted that Augustine's theology grew out of a polemic against error, adding that this shows that without error "movement of a living, spiritual kind is hardly thinkable," Writing as prefect to Charles Curran on July 25, 1986, he argued that "the faithful must accept not only the infallible magisterium. They are to give the religious submission of intellect and will to the teaching which the supreme pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith and morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act" (my italics).

The scope for Church theologians to question the doctrines of the Church is a problematic one. It is a fair concern of Rome that seminarians and lay people should not be misled as to the teachings of the Church by dissenting theologians acting in an authoritative context. But that does not mean that such questionings of doctrine cannot—or should not—take place at all within a Catholic context. Catholic University's compromise in letting Curran retain tenure, but restricting him to teaching on a non-ecclesiastical faculty "in moral theology and/or ethics," strikes a reasonable balance. It is also conceivable that Curran could be maintained on an ecclesiastical faculty as long as in his teaching, he distinguished clearly between his own and the Church's views. What is catastrophic both for the future of the faith and for maintaining the confidence of intelligent, obedient Catholics in the Church is that no questioning should be tolerated at all, Ratzinger's letter even implies that acquiescent silence is no longer enough. This suffocation of reason in the Church carries all the hallmarks of a self-fulfilling strategy.

The metamorphosis of Joseph Ratzinger from Augustinian theologian to Augustinian policeman, and finally to policeman, may in part be due to the metamorphosis of the Church itself. The forces of change have been so great in the Church during the past two decades that some form of simple assertion of authority may have a prudential justification. John Paul II, however, has balanced Ratzinger's zeal with a more pragmatic and humane approach. Together, they have played a "good cop, bad cop" routine with recalcitrant faithful. Ratzinger's great gift to a Church all too easily distracted by the world is to call the faithful back to the fundamentals. But it is difficult not to feel dismayed by the way in which his earlier inspiration has ceded to the dictates of coercion, and his theological distrust of fallen man has translated so easily into disdain for Christians trying to live obediently in modernity. The man who might have guided the Church through reason has resorted to governing by force. In some ways, Ratzinger was his own first victim as Grand Inquisitor.

Or it may, of course, be that the love of truth is incompatible with the enforcement of truth. That, after all, is Dostoyevsky's half-suggestion. It is certainly at the core of some of the most powerful objections to Catholicism ever made. But Dostoyevsky—and the Church—provide a half-solution. After the Inquisitor rages at Jesus, he waits for a reply: "The old man would have liked Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man and kissed him gently on his bloodless, aged lips." That kiss is a simple reminder that Christian truth may be painful, but without love it is also unbearable.