Helpless in the Vatican The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI
Part 4: Traumatic Experiences
Instead, he quickly embarked on a career as a theologian. In 1958, at the age of 31, he became a professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology. In 1962, he served as a theological consultant to the Second Vatican Council, where Ratzinger championed views that were both liberal and critical of the Vatican, views that advocated the individual freedom of a Christian and opposed the Roman Curia's claim to omnipotence. At the time, Ratzinger argued that the Church had "reins that are far too tight, too many laws, many of which have helped to leave the century of unbelief in the lurch, instead of helping it to redemption."
After the Council, Ratzinger, together with Hans Küng and Karl Rahner, was considered one of the reformers in the Church. In 1966, he brought his friend Küng to the University of Tübingen in southern Germany as a professor of dogmatic theology. In 1968, Ratzinger and 1,360 other theologians worldwide signed a resolution drafted by Küng, titled "For the Freedom of Theology."
In the same year, however, Ratzinger had a traumatic experience that explains his thoughts and actions to this day. During the 1968 revolt, he witnessed his students reviling the image of Christ on the cross as a "sadomasochistic glorification of pain" and chanting "Jesus be damned!" during one of his lectures. In a 1983 SPIEGEL interview, he said that it became clear to him in the lecture halls at Tübingen, then under the spell of the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, that the outcome of the Council had been the "opposite" of what had been intended.
Guardian of the Truth
For the 41-year-old cleric, the Tübingen experiences were a deep shock that changed him radically from a cosmopolitan theologian to a timid dogmatist. Since then, the unalterable, God-given truth has meant everything to him. For Ratzinger everything had to be subordinate to this truth.
Ratzinger also believed that the Catholic Church is the guardian of the absolute moral truth. As archbishop of Munich and Freising, Ratzinger had the motto "Cooperatores veritatis" ("Worker of Truth") embroidered onto his shoulder shawl. As Ratzinger often points out disdainfully, he believes that the notion that truth only reveals itself in fragments to people, including those who believe in God, and that truth is therefore not a fixed variable but takes on different forms in time and space, depending on culture and tradition, is nothing but condemnable "relativism."
In Ratzinger's world, man is more of an object than an active subject. Critics of this pope have noticed, again and again, that he comes across as distant and cold, even when he turns to people with deliberate affection. He completely lacks the charisma of palpable brotherly love that John Paul II exuded.
In 1981, John Paul II brought Ratzinger, then an archbishop who had already been elevated to the rank of cardinal, to Rome to head the CDF. At the pope's request, Ratzinger first turned his attention to Latin America. The Polish pope believed that leftist priests there were trying to lead the faithful astray into Marxist convictions. He pilloried the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and condemned the movement's commitment, which was based on theology, to a Church of the poor.
For more than two decades, Cardinal Ratzinger, from his office in Rome, kept watch to ensure that the faithful around the world -- including, in particular, the Church's functionaries, its priests and bishops -- toed the line. His soft gestures, shyness and high voice can be deceptive. In truth, Ratzinger is also a staunch crusader.
When Ratzinger became pope, he met with nothing but enthusiasm in the first few months of his papacy. Soon, however, he quickly became the target of criticism. His Regensburg speech in September 2006 provoked Islamists around the world to commit acts of violence against Christians. It was only with difficulty that the Church managed to smooth out the waves of outrage Benedict's words had triggered. Nevertheless, many still believed that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the learned professor had only expressed himself awkwardly when he said, quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."
The next scandal came in January 2009, when the pope rehabilitated Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, an excommunicated bishop of the Society of St. Pius X, a reactionary faith group that Benedict XVI was determined to bring back into his church. It was all the more controversial because Benedict is German. For fear of a permanent rift, the pope risked the reputation of Catholicism worldwide.
When Benedict XVI visited Israel a few months later, a trip that was only made possible after a number of pretexts and explanations, his appearance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial was sharply criticized as being "almost sterile," "unemotional" and simply "disappointing." Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau had expected to see more human sympathy for the suffering of murdered Jews. Instead, he said, the pope's speech was "devoid of any compassion, any regret, any pain over the horrible tragedy." He also criticized the pope for not using the phrase "6 million Jews" in relation to the number of Holocaust victims.