Searching for the Real Ratzinger
The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church
By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Dale Vree
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the primary guardian of Roman Catholic orthodoxy), has been widely caricatured as Rome’s version of Jerry Falwell, Margaret Thatcher, and the Ayatollah. He is said to be a “conservative” or “reactionary” (take your pick), and Hans Küng has recently blasted him for being a backward-looking, close-minded Grand Inquisitor.
I picked up The Ratzinger Report (already an international sensation) with a desire to evaluate the above images of the man. A picture emerged from the book, a picture that was supplemented by a concurrent meeting with the man.
Recently I had occasion to go to Europe on business. One stop was Rome. Before embarking I had written Ratzinger to see if he might have a few minutes to chat with me. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an affirmative response. I must say that, overall, the Ratzinger I discovered in this book and encountered in the flesh was not the right-wing oppressor portrayed by Küng and others.
Now for some details:
Once inside Ratzinger’s office, I told him that the mass media typically use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in a one-dimensional way, so as to pigeonhole people, and as in his case, so as to dismiss him as a “conservative.” He said he is acutely aware of this problem, whereupon I suggested that a crucial way to break away from this pigeonholing is constantly to stress that the Church’s outlook not only calls into question the dissident posture of certain Catholic theologians, the libertinism of Western culture, and the oppressive Marxism of the East, but also the consumerism and free-market economics of the West. To which Ratzinger readily agreed.
And not surprisingly, for in The Ratzinger Report the Cardinal clearly takes this posture (a posture which both party-line liberals and conservatives have a vested interest in ignoring). There he flatly declares that dissident theologians are “stamped by the typical mentality of the opulent bourgeoisie of the West.” Note well that the Cardinal’s association of the dissident mind-set with the “opulent bourgeoisie” is meant as a criticism; indeed, as a self-evident criticism.
Is Ratzinger, then, in some sense anti-bourgeois? I don’t know for sure, but if he had tweaked the bourgeoisie simply to score a quick polemical point — as do our neoconservatives in America with their talk about the “New Class” — he would of course restrict his anti-bourgeois jibes to the liberal theologians, as if to say: our liberal theologians, who think they are anti-bourgeois, are hypocritical because they themselves are bourgeois in attitude and inspiration.
But no, Ratzinger doesn’t content himself with pointing only to this irony. His critique of the bourgeoisie extends further: he writes that in the West, Catholic morality “now appears to many like an alien body from times long past….” Why is this so? Because Catholic morality is indeed antiquated? No. In the book he attributes it to the pervasive bourgeois condition whereby “money and wealth are the measure of all things” and where “the model of the free market imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life….” Driving the point home, he writes: “Economic liberalism [i.e., free-market economics] creates its exact counterpart, permissivism, on the moral plane.” Bourgeois materialism and consumerism glorify instant gratification, and this, coupled with the freedom of choice which a market mentality enshrines, produces a situation where Catholic morality — with its emphasis on self-restraint, service, and absolute norms — is perceived as an absurdity.
Note well that Ratzinger’s perspective is not that of conservatives or neoconservatives, who blame permissivism on progressive ideologies. No, he probes deeper, and fundamentally blames permissivism on bourgeois materialism and the free market. This is a perspective that cuts clean through the conventional left/right ideological polarity. So much for the stereotype of “Ratzinger the conservative”!
(It is also fascinating to consider that Ratzinger sees his role as guardian of orthodoxy in a “class” perspective. He writes that orthodoxy is a treasure that “belongs to everybody, beginning with the poor,” who are least able to defend themselves and their simple faith from the dissenting opinions of the fancy-talking “liberal” theologians. We might say that the defense of orthodoxy is itself an “option for the poor.”)
It will shock most of his admirers and detractors to discover that Ratzinger apparently doesn’t see himself as a conservative. In the book he states his discomfort with “those schematic formulations conservative/progressive.” If one sees the “pre-Vatican II” Church as “conservative,” Ratzinger writes that the Council’s “counter-concept to ‘conservative’ is not ‘progressive’ but ‘missionary.’” Throughout the book he states that Christ liberates us from fear and that life in Christ is a life of joy — and because we should want to share this gift, we are impelled to become missionaries. Although Ratzinger invokes the word “restoration” and gets tangled in its semantics, it is abundantly clear from the surrounding text that he doesn’t want to “turn back the clock” to the pre-Vatican II days of a protective and insular Church. That is neither possible nor desirable, he writes. The point of the Council, he indicates, was to help Catholics break out of a defensive and routinized framework and discover in a fresh and vivid way the authentic liberation Christ offers us.
In this regard, he repeatedly states in the book that what we need are not more ecclesiastical managers, but more saints. Not more position papers and flow charts, but more holiness. And he wryly notes that many “progressive” ecclesiastical officials have “planned” for a renewal that has not yet come, while outside the bureaucratic maze, lay-oriented renewal movements — particularly the charismatic movement — have spontaneously sprung up. It is to these renewal movements that Ratzinger looks with great hope.
Curiously, those ecclesiastical officials who most claim to be imbued with the “spirit of Vatican II” have not known what to do with these movements because, writes Ratzinger, they don’t fit into preconceived bureaucratic blueprints. Let no one think, then, that Cardinal Ratzinger is just the creation of a fearful “institutional” Church bent on taming grace to suit itself. To the contrary. For, in commenting on the spontaneous renewal movements, Ratzinger writes: “the Spirit is once more stronger than our programs….” If any one of Ratzinger’s statements in this book is the key to understanding him, this is probably it.
If I have accurately rendered Ratzinger’s thinking up to this point, I should not give the impression that there is an automatic agreement in our thinking. For example, in the book Ratzinger is critical of national episcopal conferences. One of his criticisms is that they “often yield flattened documents where decisive positions…are weakened.” As an example, he writes that opposition to Nazism was strongest among certain individual bishops, whereas the documents issued by the German episcopate as a whole “were often rather wan and too weak.” Be that as it may, I would cite a more timely counter-example: One can say what one wants about the U.S. bishops’ pastorals on war/peace and on the U.S. economy, but one can hardly indict them for being wan and too weak.
In his statements on the Marxist-oriented brand of liberation theology in the book, Ratzinger says that “it does not fit into any of the accepted categories of heresy.” I suggested that we might see a precedent in Pelagianism, whereby man is offered self-salvation and the Kingdom of God on earth by means of grace-less human action. I also suggested that Marxist-oriented liberation theology might be seen as a modernized form of Gnosticism, whereby the radical spatial dualism of ancient Gnosticism becomes a Gnostic-like temporal dualism wherein the present is repudiated in favor of a pseudo-salvific manmade order of the “Future.” Ratzinger, who does not suffer foolish editors gladly, seemed prepared to see Pelagianism and Gnosticism as precedents, though we did not have time to go into the nuances of the question.
There was one disagreement where I wasn’t quite able to bring the Cardinal to see my point of view. I told him that I agreed with his statement in the book that “it is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority…. It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism….” Of course, it is in the Communist countries where Christians have (however unwillingly) reacquired this consciousness and courage. In this sense, I thought we might, however paradoxically, be able to look with some favor on the Communist East.
Indeed, Ratzinger writes that the “faith seems to be more secure in the East, where it is officially persecuted. At the doctrinal level there are practically no problems with Catholicism in those regions.” He also writes that “it is only where Marxism-Leninism is not in control that there are still people who take its illusory ‘scientific truths’ seriously.” Ratzinger even goes so far as to write (with apparent approval) that, “Cardinal Alfred Bengsch of Berlin once said to me that he saw greater danger in Western consumerism and a theology infected by it than in Marxist ideology.” Seeing the direction of the book here, I said that the Communist East also looks better in the sense that the cultural and sexual revolutions are much weaker there than in the West — which he agreed is true.
In view of the above, I questioned this statement of his in the book: “It seems to me that, in its philosophy and its moral goals, Marxism represents a more insidious temptation than many practical atheisms [e.g., consumerism in the West] which are…less ambitious intellectually.” I objected that Marxism is only attractive (to Christians) in the West, and I quoted back his own words to the effect that it is only in the Marxist East that people don’t take Marxism seriously as an intellectual system. Indeed, I added that when Marxism comes to power it destroys its own intellectual credibility. My point being that we Catholics should not see Marxism as a more insidious threat than Western consumerist capitalism.
But I don’t think I got my point across, for he came back to the injustices that Marxism in power inflicts upon man. On that point I could not disagree with him. Our “disagreement” seemed to rest elsewhere — namely, on the fact that, oddly enough, Ratzinger (even with his vast ecclesiastical responsibilities) is apparently more concerned about Marxism’s negative impact on man as such, while I (a layman) am more interested in its (ironically) positive impact on the Church. It was a role reversal pregnant with meaning, for it is unlikely that a “Grand Inquisitor” would be so concerned with the quality of life outside the “institutional” Church.
I walked away from my chat with Ratzinger — and from The Ratzinger Report — convinced that he (like his boss, John Paul) is a misunderstood man. First, if he is a “conservative,” it is only in the sense in which all Catholics must be conservative: we dare not squander the treasure of the faith. Beyond that, I do not recognize him as a conservative, and I dare say he does not so recognize himself. As a critic of bourgeois norms and the free market, he cannot be so labeled, just as his boss cannot be.
Second, I cannot fully evaluate the charge that Ratzinger is an intolerant man, a new Grand Inquisitor, but I suspect it is a cheap shot, for the Ratzinger I met is a gentle man, a man who listens attentively, even a man who is open to reconsidering the positions he has taken. But more than that: he seems to be a man of extraordinary intellectual and spiritual depth. His mind is razor sharp, and when he says that the thing we need is more holiness he does not sound hollow or platitudinous.
Those who are on the wrong end of controversy with him are up against a formidable foe. This is not to say Ratzinger is infallible in everything he says or does. But it is to say that the defense and promotion of Catholic orthodoxy are in the hands of an ardent and articulate advocate. He is no ecclesiastical time-server, zealous only about consolidating the prerogatives of a bureaucracy. He will be ridiculed and caricatured — but he cannot be ridiculed and caricatured away. He is made of tougher stuff than that. He is a man who seems to be attentive to the unpredictable winds of the Spirit, and this is likely his fundamental strength.
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