The death of Benedict XVI

Image: Oli


The specialists of mainstream seem inclined to forgive Josef Ratzinger's worldly offenses, which need to be known

The long-awaited death of Josef Ratzinger – head of the Catholic Church between 2005 and 2013 as Pope Benedict XVI – led to a deluge of the kind of hollow praise that accompanies the death of any pillar of the establishment. One can detect in some of the comments the terms of a debate over Benedict's legacy that has been going on for some time – particularly over his role in the crisis sparked by revelations of widespread sexual abuse within the Church. Given the deep political polarization at the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy and the likely prospect of a bruising confrontation over Pope Francis' successor in the very near future, the acceptance of Benedict XVI by an aggressive Catholic right in recent years means these controversies are likely to continue. .

For now, however, experts from the mainstream seem inclined (as they did over the recent death of the British monarch) to forgive Josef Ratzinger's worldly offenses and instead focus on an ostensibly benign theological legacy. In many quarters, he is credited with "finally facing" the problem of sexual abuse. Given the scale of his partial involvement in major battles within the Church over many years, this is an overly generous approach that lends itself to apologetics or, worse, cover-up. Confronted with bland platitudes and vapid praise on the one hand and a looming confrontation with the resurgent Catholic far right on the other, socialists need a sober and sensible assessment of Benedict XVI's role.


Youth and background

Josef Ratzinger was born into a pious middle-class family in Marktl am Inn, a Bavarian village along the German-Austrian border. Much has been made of her joining the Hitler Youth movement as a teenager, but that seems to have been mandatory: her family was moderately hostile to the Nazis, mainly because of the restrictions they placed on German Catholicism. At age 12, he was enrolled in a junior seminary in Traunstein, and after the war he entered a Catholic seminary in Freising, later attending University in Munich.

Josef Ratzinger's early reputation as a liberal within the German Church is well known, as is his support for Vatican II – the internal reforms initiated in Rome from 1962 – which called on a Church seen as distant and lifeless to "open the windows (…) so that we can look outside and people outside can look in”. Most accounts of his Munich years paint Josef Ratzinger as a progressive who turned around when confronted with the excesses of 1968, and while there is an element of truth here, the reality is that Josef Ratzinger's early enthusiasm was always conditional. .

He attended the sessions of Vatican II at age 35 as an academic theologian who had little contact with lay Catholics. While a faction in Rome – the movement of updating – pressed to embrace the modern world and “integrate the joys and hope, the pain and anguish of humanity into what it means to be a Christian”, Josef Ratzinger leaned towards the retrograde faction grouped around Healing – a “back to basics” impulse that pushed for a return to early tradition. Yet writings by him at the time "breathe with the spirit of Vatican II," wrote one critic, "the spirit that Josef Ratzinger . . . would later despise."

Vatican II represented a compromise between liberals and church traditionalists—a forgery that makes it possible even today for both conservatives and a dwindling core of church progressives to claim it as their own. Both Francis and his right-wing opponents, for example, declare themselves faithful heirs of Vatican II.


Turning point in 1968

Even given this ambiguity, there is no doubt that the effect of the social upheavals around 1968 led Ratzinger to a fundamental social and theological conservatism and a profound hostility against what he saw as the evil influences of secularism and modern life. This fundamental rejection of the legacy of the 1960s—indeed, the entire heritage of the Enlightenment—informed virtually every area of ​​Josef Ratzinger's public role, from his appointment as Cardinal of Munich in 1977 to his handling of the sexual abuse scandals in recent years. years.

In 1966, Josef Ratzinger took up a professorship at the University of Tübingen, then a “flagship of theological liberalism”. When student protests reached campus in 1968, Josef Ratzinger reacted with heightened hostility, outraged that students dared to challenge him in the classroom and appalled that his peers did not share this resentment. When protesters disrupted the faculty's Congregation, Josef Ratzinger reportedly walked out instead of responding to students, as other professors had done.

Stunned that radicalization had made inroads even among Catholic officials, Josef Ratzinger put his faith in the theology course protesters to provide a “bulwark” against the left, but even they let him down. Standing against the “fanatical ideologies” that circulate around the world, he wrote discouraged (albeit prematurely): “The Marxist idea has conquered the world”.

Simultaneously, conservatives within the Church scored a major victory in the internal conflict over the implications of Vatican II, when in the same year Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating Rome's traditional ban on artificial contraception. The Church's reluctance to change the issue of birth control deflated not only many lay Catholics but also a substantial layer of clergy who had signaled support for the "rights of individual conscience" and who had presumed, perhaps naively, that the lofty rhetoric of the Vatican II would be accompanied by corresponding acts. The abrupt shift to the right was "all the more disheartening" for many worshipers because it "followed a moment of so much optimism and new life".

The ban on contraception must be seen in the context of a deeply conservative backlash against the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and Josef Ratzinger was at the center of the panic it induced among Church conservatives. Later, he recalled being repulsed by a outdoor of film showing "two completely naked people in a tight embrace". Rejecting “complete sexual freedom [which] no longer respected any norm”, Josef Ratzinger blamed the new permissiveness for a “mental breakdown” in the whole society, associating it with a new “propensity for violence” and – curiously – the outbreak of fist fights during air travel. Eccentricities aside, this signaled the beginning of a major drive to roll back sexual freedom and, in later iterations, would include an obsessive fixation on targeting LGBTQ rights.


John Paul II, the challenge of secularism and liberation theology

By the late 1970s, Josef Ratzinger had rejected even the lukewarm liberalism of his youth, and it was this shift that led him to collaborate with Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II. At the heart of John Paul II's tenure in Rome was a sustained campaign to bring about the hollowing out of Vatican II and consolidate conservative control over the global church. His appointment as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made Josef Ratzinger John Paul's foremost heresy hunter, earning a reputation as "God's Rottweiler" for his role in a series of brutal purges - including of his own former friends. close to Germany. The "freedom to probe, which Josef Ratzinger once demanded of theologians", writes a biographer, "was now being rapidly eroded by his own hand".

The rise of Liberation Theology in Latin America presented the most formidable challenge facing Rome in the early 1980s. In a desperately poor region where the Catholic hierarchy had consistently aligned itself with corrupt US-backed regional elites – including the dictatorships of responsible for numerous cases of torture and murder – a challenge began to emerge in the late 1960s, led initially by grassroots missionaries among the Jesuits and other religious orders, including large numbers of women. By the mid-1970s, they had gained widespread influence among workers and the poor, organized into “grassroots communities” that operated outside the control of upper levels of the hierarchy.

John Paul II's iconic gesture as he shook his index finger at Sandinista priest-poet and Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal on the runway at Managua airport in 1983 gave a clear indication of Rome's attitude towards rising left-wing Catholicism in Latin America . The campaign then under way was comprehensive, involving high-level collaboration between Rome and the Reagan administration in Washington, and included generous CIA support for the assassinations of members of religious orders.

The scale of the purge can be seen in Brazil, where, under a military regime, Liberation Theology had taken deep root among a new generation of industrial workers, in the favelas, and among the rural poor. There, John Paul II replaced progressives with conservative religious leaders in nine of Brazil's thirty-six archdioceses, a "dismantling" that continued under Benedict XVI. Rome oversaw a multifaceted campaign against the Catholic left, involving intense centralization, bureaucratic arrogance, and tacit support for military repression. But it was Josef Ratzinger who led the ideological campaign to win the Church back to the right.

Here John Paul's Rottweiler turned his theological training to eradicating the "heresy" of the liberationists' "preferential option for the poor". In 1984, he issued his “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology,” which predictably argued that biblical references to the poor referred to a “poverty of spirit” rather than material inequality. Wielding a “perverted” concept of the poor and inciting the envy of the rich, liberation theology represented in their eyes a “denial of faith”. Josef Ratzinger responded with a "theology of reconciliation", following the Pope's warning that "a more harmonious society" would require "both the forgiveness of the poor, for past exploitation, and the sacrifice of the rich".

Josef Ratzinger oversaw the purge of leading exponents of liberation theology, including Brazilians Leonard Boff and nun Ivone Gebara, whose work “linked liberation theology with environmental concerns” and who “advocated poor women who had abortions so as not to endanger themselves. existing children”. At the same time, he reached out to right-wing organizations like Opus Dei and brought the Latin American bishops' conference [CELAM] directly under Rome's control. In the face of widespread repression and a sweeping purge led by Josef Ratzinger, by the early 1990s liberation theology was in full retreat.


Sexual abuse, homophobia and misogyny

With this major confrontation on his record and the Church's "liberal voice" in retreat in several camps, Josef Ratzinger was well positioned to take over when John Paul II died in 2005. Handpicked by his predecessor, his "election" as Pope Benedict XVI was decided before the voting began. The “victories already achieved in the closing decades of the twentieth century [around] issues of sexual morality, clerical celibacy, the place of women, and religious liberty [were] secure,” writes Peter Stanford, and his papacy represented “a postscript extended from the one who was gone.”

There was one major complication that threatened to unsettle Benedict's rule: revelations of widespread sexual abuse by clergy throughout the Church were continually swept under the rug by John Paul II – sometimes with the support of Josef Ratzinger. Continuing the trend of intense centralization, as mayor in 2001 he ordered that all reports of sexual abuse be forwarded to Rome, with severe penalties against leaks – including the threat of excommunication. Investigations were to be conducted internally, behind closed doors, and any evidence was to be kept confidential for up to 10 years after victims reached adulthood. His clear priority was damage control to the Church's reputation. Victims correctly characterized this as a “clear obstruction of justice”.

When he assumed the papacy in 2005, avoidance was no longer an option. A major scandal erupted in 2002 when it was revealed that Cardinal Law of Boston – the “favorite son of John Paul II in America” – had “secretly transferred the attackers from one parish to another”. Similar revelations emerged in Ireland and Australia. Described by victims as “the poster child for covering up crimes of sexual abuse against children”, Law not only avoided reprimand, but was promoted to a $145.000-a-year position in Rome. The obituaries drew attention to Benedict's willingness to censure Marcial Maciel, father-founder of the powerful Legionaries of Christ, father of several children and accused of widespread abuse. Marcial Maciel was untouchable under John Paul II, and Benedict's mild censure was long overdue.

Media attention made it impossible for Benedict to avoid the issue any longer: clearly it was these pressures, not any change of heart on his part, that compelled him to take limited action. Even minimal scrutiny, however, shows the same priorities – defending the church's reputation and its finances – were evident in all aspects of Benedict's response. His own carefully crafted image as a trusted mediator was severely tarnished when it was revealed that Ratzinger himself had been involved in covering up such crimes while a cardinal in Munich, and in 2022, he was forced to admit to providing false information to an inquiry there.

More significant is the ideological content of Benedict's attempt to rescue the Church. The problem of sexual abuse and its systematic cover-up became, in Bento's hands, yet another confirmation of the depravity provoked by sexual permissiveness and, unsurprisingly, an opportunity to protest against the evils of homosexuality. There was little tolerance for frank discussion of the problems inherent in clerical celibacy or the costs of sexual repression in general. Time and again, Benedict XVI and his closest aides have tried to link the appalling abuse committed under their watch to a specific penchant for pedophilia that they attribute to “homosexual cliques” and “gay lobbies”. This was the basis for his admission of “how much filth there is in the church [even among] the priesthood”, and earned Benedict the endorsement of the Catholic right, who were relieved to go back on the offensive after so long on the defensive. It was a despicable attempt to deflect responsibility from the Vatican for crimes committed under its watch.

The scapegoating of the LGBTQ community was rooted in a more general misogyny, underpinning the Catholic right's response to even the more moderate demands of female congregations to assume a greater role in church life. In 2003 Ratzinger denounced civil unions for same-sex couples as "evil legislation" and, at the height of his papacy in 2004, his Charter on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World defined the role of women in terms of virginity followed by marriage, motherhood, and the breadwinner role of the male head of household, citing Genesis 3:16: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Under both popes, the Vatican has become obsessed with policing dissent around its teachings on sex, and women have paid an especially heavy price. In Latin America, the hierarchy has welcomed a shift away from social and economic justice towards fixation with sexual morality and resistance to abortion. In the United States – apparently at the instigation of Cardinal Law – the Church cracked down on nuns accused of promoting “radical feminist issues incompatible with the Catholic faith”. Coming from religious orders with experience in Latin America, they have been accused of “'corporate dissent' on homosexuality and failure to speak up about abortion” and criticized for supporting socialized health care. Elsewhere, a nun was excommunicated for supporting a pregnant woman whose doctors believed she (and her unborn child) would die if they did not terminate her pregnancy.” Priests have been removed from teaching positions for questioning Church teachings on birth control.


the legacy of Benedict XVI: a church in free fall

Beneath the sound and fury, the entire period between the ascendancy of John Paul II and the papacy of Francis is marked more by continuity than rupture. Although the background music has changed, there is no prospect of a fundamental change in direction and, despite the insults from the Catholic right, the reality is that Francis has only touched on the edges of a deep, possibly existential, crisis facing the Church. Josef Ratzinger himself has acknowledged that, to maintain its dogma, the Church may have to accept a sharp decline in numbers and influence, and this is clearly the preferred trajectory of the Catholic right, which has made Benedict's orthodoxy "a kind of Catholicism of Tea Party [the extremist wing of the Republican Party in the 2000s]”: they wield considerable influence and seem eager to purge all who disagree with their backward social teaching and distorted view of sexual morality.

They may not have a choice. In the traditional heartland of Catholicism – Ireland among them – the Church is in freefall, with no signs of recovery. In Latin America, where it once enjoyed a religious monopoly – and across Asia and Africa – Benedict's war against liberation theology has opened the door to grassroots evangelicals and Protestant sects, which are growing by leaps and bounds among the dispossessed. in places like Brazil. The profound inadequacy of its response to the sexual abuse scandal has shaken many religious believers and opened the door to the endemic sexism and authoritarianism in the heart of the Catholic Church. Those looking for a world that allows humanity to flourish will have to look elsewhere for solutions.

*Brian Kelly Professor of History at Queen's University Belfast.

Translation: Sean Purdy.

Originally published in rebel news.


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