Friday, August 8, 2003

Cardinal Ratzinger in the news . . .

Just as Dominus Iesus was merely a reiteration of the Church's traditional understanding of the essential role of Christ and his Church in salvation, so the latest document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith really contains nothing new or revelatory, and is essentially a reitaration of the Church's traditional moral teaching on human sexuality and marriage. And yet, you wouldn't know it from all the hysteria with which critics have regarded both documents.

One gay news organization has chosen to respond by adopting the methods of the supermarket tablioid -- blaring "Pope's Advisor a Member of the Hitler Youth" 1. The body of the article is just as vague and utterly devoid of factual information. Basing its "scoop" on The Sunday Times, it mentions that Ratzinger "was a member of Hitler's Youth in his home region of Bavaria, Germany. Despite leaving the Nazis in 1945, Ratzinger is famed for maintaining harshly right-wing ideals."

The story that Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth is true. It's a biographical fact that seems to have circulated on many a mailing list, and seems to surface at precisely opportune times when the Prefect finds himself in the media's spotlight. From the way it has been presented one might assume this is one of those skeletons the Cardinal keeps tucked away in his closet (next to his executioner's axe and the token heads of Hans Kung, Matthew Fox, Leonardo Boff & Charles Curran).

The truth is that Ratzinger himself mentions in Milestones: Memoirs: 1927 - 1977 that he and his brother George were both enrolled in the Hitler Youth (at a time when membership was compulsory), and discusses family life under the Third Reich in chapters 2-4 of his autobiography.

Likewise, John Allen Jr., journalist for the National Catholic Reporter and author of 2002's biography of the Cardinal The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, -- supplies the historical details sorely lacking in's article in one of his many newspaper articles on the Cardinal:

As a seminarian, he was briefly enrolled in the Hitler Youth in the early 1940s, though he was never a member of the Nazi party. In 1943 he was conscripted into an antiaircraft unit guarding a BMW plant outside Munich. Later Ratzinger was sent to Austria's border with Hungary to erect tank traps. After being shipped back to Bavaria, he deserted. When the war ended, he was an American prisoner of war.

Under Hitler, Ratzinger says he watched the Nazis twist and distort the truth. Their lies about Jews, about genetics, were more than academic exercises. People died by the millions because of them. The church's service to society, Ratzinger concluded, is to stand for absolute truths that function as boundary markers: Move about within these limits, but outside them lies disaster.

Later reflection on the Nazi experience also left Ratzinger with a conviction that theology must either bind itself to the church, with its creed and teaching authority, or it becomes the plaything of outside forces -- the state in a totalitarian system or secular culture in Western liberal democracies. In a widely noted 1986 lecture in Toronto, Ratzinger put it this way: "A church without theology impoverishes and blinds, while a churchless theology melts away into caprice." 2

* * *

The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith arrived in the mail shortly after I set up this website back in 2000. I was delighted that the publishing house had sent it to me, given that it was the very first real 'book review' I'd ever written (well, at least since college).

Needless to say, the work was not very well received by orthodox Catholics. Even Commonweal found fault with it. 3 However, as I attempted to demonstrate, while acknowledging the author's decidely liberal bias pervasive throughout the text, I also detected what I believed to be distinct signs of (grudging) respect and appreciation for the Cardinal: going so far as to criticize the way he has been portrayed ("[Ratzinger] is not the vengeful, power-obsessed old man who lurks like a bogyman in the imaginations of the Catholic left"), recognizing that "[Ratzinger's] arguments are more than ex post facto rationalizations for exercises of authority", and, in a moment undoubtely suprising to many readers, admitting "in the unlikely event I ever had access to Ratzinger as a personal confesser, I would not hesitate to open my heart to him, so convinced I am of the clarity of his insight, his integrity, and his commitment to the priesthood." 4 Now, how many members of Voice of the Faithful can say that?

* * *
On the topic of Cardinal Ratzinger, recently ran another story on rumors of the Cardinal's prospective retirement. This is not the first time rumors of retirement have circulated. Back in September 2001 John Allen Jr. observed in his column "Word from Rome" that the Cardinal has increasingly opted to let his secretaries take charge in various matters. And in an article on published around the same time, Ratzinger personally expressed the desire to do so:
Ratzinger, who has headed the Congregation for 21 years, said that he could "not wait to write books again. I'm getting there but getting there is not enough." He said in a pastoral letter that he felt unable to continue his work as a cardinal due to his age and fatigue. And after 12 years as archbishop, he said he also wanted to make way for "new faces." 5

But as John N. Nupia of Roman Catholic News has explained, at age 75 a bishop is required to "present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff". However, the sole and exclusive decision to grant this request belongs to the Supreme Pontiff, who does not always do so -- and at least so far the Holy Father has decided that the Church cannot do without him at this point in time, having twice over asked him to stay in office.

Nevertheless, it is only a matter of years before Ratzinger's request to step down is granted -- I'd probably be exhausted too, after 21 years being the Vatican's "doctrinal watchdog" -- and so the media has been speculating of late who will succeed him when the time comes. Two possible candidates that I've read about are Cardinal Schonborn (one of the chief architects of the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and Archbishop Angelo Amato, who recently replaced Tarcisio Bertone as Ratzinger's secretary.

According to a profile in the Italian periodical L'espresso, Amato is a competent theologian specializing in Asiatic religions and Eastern Christianity. Furthermore:

[Like Bertone] Angelo Amato is also a Salesian – but he's not a canonist. He's a theologian who specialized in Christology. John Paul II consecrated him bishop on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. He has worked for years in the Vatican as a consultant to the Holy Office and to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

His counsel is weighty. The declaration Dominus Iesus, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is in large part the fruit of his labors. And it is plausible to suppose that the same document was the origin of his promotion. 6

Although Bertone was secretary at the time Dominus Iesus was published, Amato assisted in its presentation, explaining in this interview with (7/9/00), that the document was intended as a corrective to erroneous assumptions held by participants in interreligious & ecumenical dialogue. Earlier this month Amato again took part in another interview with (8/1/03) defending the Holy See's stance on homosexual union. I predict that we will see much more of the Salesian Archbishop in the future, and when the time comes for a new Prefect I believe he may become a worthy successor to the good Cardinal.

  1. "Pope's Advisor a Member of the Hitler Youth[!]". August 4, 2003.
  2. "The Vatican's Enforcer", National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999.
  3. Likewise, Gerard Serafin has also referred in his blog to "the mellowing" of John Allen Jr. towards the Pope, his collaborators, and even Opus Dei.
  4. The full spectrum of reviews of Allen's biography can be found here.
  5. Vatican's Cardinal Ratzinger Announces Retirement Plans, by Agence France Presse. Sept. 10, 2001.
  6. "At the Right Hand of the Father: Ratzinger Promotes His Star Pupil", by Sandro Magister. L'Espresso, Feb. 1, 2003.

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