James Debono and Matthew Vella
Papal favourite Joseph Ratzinger yesterday became the 265th pope in the history of the Catholic Church, the sixth German pope, and the sixteenth pope named Benedict in the long line of pontiffs.
White smoke yesterday emerged earlier than expected at 5.50pm, and the great bells of St Peter’s Basilica started chiming at 6.11 pm, as crowds thronged into St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, some running to catch their first glimpse of the new pontiff.
At 6.47 pm, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez of Chile, the senior cardinal deacon, appeared on the balcony of the Apostolic Palace to announce the election of the German Ratzinger, in an innovative polyglot greeting in Italian, Spanish, English, French and German, the name of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal czar.
“After the great Pope John Paul II, their lordship the cardinals elected me, a simple humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” Pope Benedict XVI yesterday said as he greeted thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics at St Peter’s Square.
But not all was welcoming on the ground. Italian state television RAI caught up with onlookers on the ground and gathered opinions on the new pontiff which were not all favourable.
Observers took the election of 78-year old Ratzinger as an indication that cardinals wanted a continuation of John Paul’s papacy by having the German, practically the second-in-command throughout the Woytjla papacy, to continue running the show.
His election was also interpreted as a way of consolidating the Catholic Church in a growing secular Europe. Ratzinger comes from a country which although was the cradle of Protestantism, is strongly atheist in practice.
Ratzinger was also the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, responsible for most of the doctrinal development of the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II.
In his sermon on Monday morning just before the Cardinals retreated in the conclave to elect a new Pope, Ratzinger called on his colleagues, listening in their mitres and scarlet robes, to stand up for an “adult faith”, withstanding ideologies and anything-goes philosophies. “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires...”
This stinging critique of modern culture was interpreted by many observers as Ratzinger’s campaign speech.
As the dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger was designated to celebrate the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontefice. This provided him with a an excellent platform to promote his vision for the Papacy just before he and 114 of his fellow cardinals were to enter the Sistine Chapel and begin the conclave.
Vatican watchers had already reported that the German had secured the support of 40 to 50 John Paul loyalists aiming to maintain doctrinal continuity with the late pope.
Observers believe Ratzinger is also bound to gain support from elements from the developing world, especially Africa where any deviation is seen as heretical. But it won’t win much support among the cardinals of Europe and America whose support in essential.
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter Stacy Meichtry notes that “opposition to Ratzinger’s candidacy has been building among a group of moderate cardinals who are moving to block the German’s candidacy.” Meichtry had identified Cardinals Godfried Danneels of Belgium and Walter Kasper of Germany as being among “the core members of the opposition group.”
In a Saturday Mass at Rome’s Santa Maria in Trastevere, Kasper instructed an audience of hundreds to not expect a “clone” of John Paul, nor “someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world.”
Stephen Bates, The Guardian’s Vatican correspondent noted that the strategy of Ratzinger’s camp could be two-pronged: “either to stampede the elderly, orthodox, conservatively-inclined cardinals into a quick decision, endorsing an apparently irresistible tide of support, or, more likely, to lay down a marker and build a power bloc and then consensus for a compromise conservative candidate to emerge during the voting.”
A Ratzinger papacy
According to John L. Allen, Ratzinger’s biographer and a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, the papacy under Ratzinger would “take shape along predictable lines”.
“Ratzinger would mount a strenuous defense of Catholic identity, resisting enticements from secular culture to water down church teaching and practice; he would stress “Culture of Life” issues, doing battle against gay marriage, euthanasia and stem cell research; he would ensure that theological speculation is contained within narrow limits. He would likely travel less, and project a more ethereal style reminiscent of Pius XII. Ratzinger’s governing metaphor for the church of the future is the mustard seed – it may have to be smaller to be faithful, what he calls a ‘creative minority’.”
But Allen also says that under Ratzinger, the Vatican would be less likely to expend resources to preserve institutions it perceives as already lost to secularism. In the case of at least some colleges, Ratzinger’s instinct would be to drop the pretence that these are still Catholic institutions, especially since he believes that the church is often brought into disrepute it clings to the institutional structure when nothing really stands behind it. The point applies also to hospitals, social service centres, and other institutions.
As a conservative, although a prime theoretician of papal authority, “Ratzinger feels an instinctive aversion to big government,” comments Allen, and that Ratzinger has already noted that the excessive amount of institutionalisation of the past two decades should be curtailed – “smaller size, less paperwork, and more focus on core concerns”.
Finally, Allen lists better bishops as part of Ratzinger’s agenda, noting that John Paul had already appointed some “spectacularly bad” bishops – Wolfgang Haas in Switzerland, Hans Hermann Gröer and Kurt Krenn in Austria, and Jan Gijsen in Holland. “Bellicose and divisive, these bishops destabilized their respective dioceses, countries and bishops’ conferences. Krenn, for example, recently resigned in disgrace following sexual scandals in his seminary in Sankt Pölten.”
Indeed, Ratzinger had actually blocked Krenn’s appointment, knowing that Krenn would be a disaster in a high-profile forum such as Vienna.
Given his long years of evaluating potential prelates, serving on the Congregation for Bishops, Ratzinger also knows the backgrounds of potential appointees, and would be able to spot potential problems.
“While Ratzinger’s appointments would be solidly conservative, they would also generally be men of intelligence and administrative skill. Whether any of this would be sufficient to overcome opposition to Ratzinger from the church’s liberal wing remains to be seen, but it does suggest the possibility for the unexpected.”
Like Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger’s vision is one which gives Catholics a sense of certainty in a postmodern world where Christianity risks becoming one view among many equally plausible interpretations of reality.
Ratzinger is not ashamed of being labelled a fundamentalist. In his sermon he said:
“Every day new sects are created. Having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church is often labelled today as fundamentalism. Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards.” Ratzinger’s intransigent views have been heavily influenced by the harrowing experience of two contending ideologies: fascism, which he experienced as a youth in Germany, and the Marxism rife in German universities during the 1960s.
“Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism,” writes John Allen, biographer of Ratzinger.
The London Sunday Times has recently revealed that as a young man, Ratzinger did indeed serve briefly and unenthusiastically with the Hitler Youth and later a German army anti-aircraft unit, though he has claimed never to have fired a shot in anger.
Ratzinger has defended himself by claiming that he could not have avoided military service in the circumstances. In fact Ratzinger deserted from the army in April 1944, claiming that Hitler was the Antichrist. He was held as a prisoner of war by American forces after the war, before making his way through the Catholic ranks.
Ratzinger has been the Vatican’s defender of doctrinal orthodoxy for many years. His stanch defence of Catholic doctrine earned him the infamous nickname of God’s rottweiler. His hand has been seen behind most of the Vatican’s more uncompromising messages in recent years.
In a twelve-page document, Ratzinger wrote that homosexuality goes “against the natural law”, that gay couples adopting “does a violence to the child” and that same sex unions are “evil”. In another document he described non-Catholic faiths as defective.
Ratzinger is also noted for his controversial political statements. In August he ordered Catholic cardinals not to administer the sacraments to Catholics campaigning for abortion rights. This was interpreted as a clear message to American Catholics not to support US presidential candidate John Kerry.
His vision of European integration also defies politically correctness. Ratzinger told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Turkey, a largely Muslim country, ought not be admitted to the European Union. “Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. The roots that have formed it… are those of Christianity,” he said.
“Turkey, which is considered a secular country but is founded upon Islam, could instead attempt to bring a cultural continent together with some neighbouring Arab countries.”