Pope Benedict XVI and the road not taken

At one point, the young Joseph Ratzinger looked like a budding church reformer. By the time he abdicated as pope this week, he had become one of the stoutest defenders of Catholic tradition.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI attends Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican Wednesday. Thousands of people are expected to gather in the Vatican for Pope Benedict's Ash Wednesday mass, which is expected to be his last before leaving office at the end of February.

By the time Pope Benedict XVI made his surprise announcement to abdicate, his image had become fixed as one of the stoutest defenders of tradition and an arch-enemy of change, liberality, and the reforming intent of the Vatican II council. But at the start of his career, he looked as if he might be a budding reformer himself.  

The pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, collaborated on changes during Vatican II with Karl Rahner, a Jesuit star from Munich who in the 1970s was talked about as pope material in liberal circles. Mr. Rahner advocated women’s ordination, supported seekers in churches outside the Catholic faith, and his theology arced more toward a universal spirituality than institutional rules, emphasizing “a human search for meaning … rooted in the unlimited horizon of God’s own being experienced within the world.”

The young Ratzinger in the 1960s was brought to Tubingen University partly by Catholic theologian Hans Kung (later censored for views bordering on heresy) and taught in a progressive Protestant-Catholic faculty. 

Ratzinger's first faculty lecture at Tubingen, eagerly awaited and still remembered today, stressed the importance of the interpretation of the Bible via church fathers of the pre-medieval era, at a time of relative excitement in scholarly circles over new "subjective" and "spiritual" interpretations of scripture. Mr. Kung was disappointed, his colleagues remember. 

Later in the mid-1960s Ratzinger experienced student campus protests firsthand. For a shy scholar whose vision of church was hewn in the clean and well-ordered Alpine villages of Bavaria – the experience deeply soured him on change as well as the often excessive experiments of Vatican II to open the church up "to the modern world," as the saying went. 

Vatican II was heady days at a time of ferment, but neither Ratzinger nor the church he eventually led, ever made the leap. Faced with a changing world, Benedict opted for a church of greater purity and reliance on past traditions – even as his tenure will be marked by a priestly child abuse scandal that two years ago was described as the biggest challenge faced by Rome since the Reformation.

Yesterday Vatican officials affirmed the outgoing Benedict will not personally direct the choice of his successor. But the outgoing pontiff has been so instrumental in shaping the policies and personnel of the Roman Catholic church that his presence won’t matter, analysts say.

For 24 years Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ruled the roost in the Vatican as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he has overseen a tightening, not a loosening, of church doctrine.

Since 2005 he further consolidated power as pope. So the conclave of cardinals and bishops meeting in Rome next month are there precisely due to their loyalty to Benedict’s vision of the Roman church.

The effect of Benedict’s reign as pope in this sense cannot be understated.

To take one example: In recent years under direct Vatican influence one of the largest Benedictine training schools in the US has, against the sentiment of its teaching clergy, been forced to disallow males and females to study in classes together. So the "Benedict effect" is not something found only in books and encyclicals; it has had an effect "on the ground," as one Benedictine theologian reports, off the record. 

In a church still quite divided on moral issues, sexuality, modernity, the concept of priest, and so on, it is unclear whether the pope’s resignation, itself an unusual break from the past, may lead to other changes.

Benedict oversaw a 2,000-year-old church with an all-male hierarchy that struggled to respond to a child abuse and pedophilia scandal that reached new excesses two years ago on both sides of the Atlantic during the "year of the priest."

The German pope did not create what some hoped would be a “Benedict generation” with his robust defense of church doctrines and a controversial return to a more traditional liturgy. While some conservative religious orders have seen some new applicants in the US, the overall numbers remain a far-cry from those before 1960. Instead, church issues among youth seem pressing, at least in the post-modern West that Benedict had hoped to appeal to with a new Catholic moment. If that moment never comes, says one New York-based Jesuit, “The church is going to go one way and the rest of us are going to go another.”

The child abuse scandal, which many dissidents in the church say is a result of the policies of all-male clergy and celibacy (the Vatican denies this) did allow, however briefly, space for different voices to be heard, and for issues treated by church fathers as settled for all time, to be raised.

The issues run from sex and gender to spiritual authority inside the church. They track the shrinking of Mass attendance in the West, the sharp downturn of youth desiring to be priests, and the angry reaction of females (again in the US and Britain) who see roles as clergy closed off when in many churches they are the most faithful.

In the midst of the priestly child abuse scandal, the church issued a circular that put women’s ordination into the same category of disciplinary crimes as heresy, pedophilia, and promoting schism. Benedict was given credit for suggesting that wearing a condom is acceptable in certain odd cases, such as that of a male prostitute. But with many Catholics no longer even following church teaching on condoms, and with the pope visiting Africa and talking about abstinence and no wearing of condoms, many can’t relate.

The pedophile cases also sparked what many Catholics say is a need for a greater spiritual awakening in a church that has placed a great emphasis on institutional authority; they placed a critical focus on old assumptions that male priests, through the act of their ordination, are holier or more spiritually endowed than ordinary members of the laity.

The British newspaper The Guardian pointed out in an editorial that it could not find a single current liberal candidate for pope, and quoted from Carlo Maria Martini, a cardinal, who said before passing last year that, “The church is tired in Europe and America. Our culture has aged, our churches are large, our religious houses are empty, and the bureaucracy of the church climbs higher, our rituals and our clothes are pompous…[the church] must recognize her mistakes and must follow a path of radical change, starting with the pope and the bishops.”

Yet many following the daily operations of the Holy See feel there is unlikely to be any revolutionary “Papal Spring.” Some reform-minded Catholics and many who have left the church say the Vatican is so deeply into the wrong questions, and has been relying so heavily on those who are not interested in questioning in the first place, that any positive reforms will only be on the margins. 

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