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Cardinal Ratzinger: Do We Really Know Him?
by Paul Wilkes
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Go figure. In the Italian newspapers and the hallways of the Vatican’s pontifical universities the name mentioned most often for pope is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany.

Seems a bit amazing, since this is the same Cardinal Ratzinger who has been relentless in demanding total orthodoxy around the globe, who has cracked down heavily on actual or perceived deviations from Church teachings.

Why is he a front-runner? His age, his membership in the Curia (the Vatican’s network of administrative departments) and the shadow side of a powerful, shadowy man are some of the major factors

His age—78—is in his favor. The last thing the cardinals want—at least according to the buzz going around Rome—is another young, vigorous pope with his bags packed and ready to travel. Pope John Paul II’s peripatetic style has worn everyone out, and the feeling is that the Vatican wants to take a deep breath, regain its footing and focus on crucial issues rather than have a pope in office for a long time, following the 26-year reign of John Paul II.

How does Ratzinger's Curia membership come into play? Because of John Paul II’s travels, each department (or congregation) of the Vatican became pretty much its own fiefdom—generally following the lines the pope drew over the years, but because of his hands-off policy, worlds unto themselves. No one knows this better than Cardinal Ratzinger, who for years headed the powerful and influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And no one is more aware of the need to give the Curia a stiff dose of discipline so they can function as a team, not individual players.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Ratzinger was considered a progressive member of the hierarchy and a forward-thinking theologian. But some say he has taken on the mantle of doctrine disciplinarian because, quite frankly, that’s what the boss wanted. The thinking here goes that John Paul II powerfully “readjusted” individual personalities, but that, with his death, a person’s original nature, thoughts and vision of the Church can now re-emerge.

Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to signal this change with his homily at John Paul’s funeral. It not only extolled the virtues of the man but also pointed to the Gospel as containing the marching orders for the Church.

Sources who know Ratzinger well describe him as affable, intelligent, loyal, and open—far more open than John Paul II. While the pope shut down discussion on such issues as ordination of other than celibate males, birth control and various bioethical issues, “Ratzinger is a man who will at least hear your argument,” said one professor with whom I spoke. “He may come out with the same conclusion he came in with, but at least you have had your say.”

As John Paul II was the Cold War pope, Ratzinger is being talked about as the “postmodern” pope. Not that he is billed especially as a postmodern thinker, but he represents a Europe that has seen numbers of those attending Mass and being married or baptized in the Church drop precipitously.

With the conclave now four days away, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera is reporting that Ratzinger already has 40 votes lined up. Where this information comes from, who knows, since the cardinals are not speaking to the media and the Holy Spirit doesn’t do polling.

But if I might weigh in on the Ratzinger papacy—I don’t think he will be the choice: too much baggage. He may also fall victim to the conflict that pushed aside both front-runners in the first papal election of 1978, then progressive Vatican II forces versus Vatican conservatives, today a group dominated by conservatives but who may feel that a Curia man does not fill the bill for the Church’s current, wider needs.

If not Ratzinger, then who? Will issues drive the selection, or will the power of a personality, or the qualities of a specific cardinal prevail? Stay tuned for my next report


Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 



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