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From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI

Michael Walsh
19 April 2005

Pope John Paul II, it was often remarked in his last few months, appointed almost all of the cardinals who were to elect his successor. Of those who gathered in the conclave on 18 April, only three owed their rank to Pope Paul VI. A remarkably quick conclusion reached the following afternoon chose one of the three as the new pope: the German Joseph Ratzinger, now designated Pope Benedict XVI.

Also in the openDemocracy debate on the Catholic church and democracy: articles by Neal Ascherson, Lavinia Byrne, Laura Greenhalgh, Ariel Dorfman, Timothy Radcliffe, Joanna Bogle, and Arthur Waskow

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The choice was a surprise. Close collaborators of the deceased pontiff – as Cardinal Ratzinger most certainly was – do not commonly inherit the papacy, since the cardinal electors usually wish to bring to that office at least a different emphasis, if not an entirely different set of policies.

This was clearly the case when, in 1914, the saintly but ultra-orthodox Pius X was replaced by Pope Benedict XV. Benedict XV was an unexpected choice, and proved a happy one. He has been called the “pope of peace”, not least because he formulated a “peace note” which on 1 August 1917 he sent to the warring powers then tearing Europe apart.

Neither the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman empire) nor the Allies (Britain, France, Russia) welcomed the pope’s proposals; each side accused him of favouring its enemies. Benedict’s idea was adapted by Woodrow Wilson in his “fourteen points”, though the pope was unhappy with the provisions of the resultant 1919 peace treaty; he feared, rightly as it turned out, that it contained the seeds of future conflict.

Benedict was a “pope of peace” within the church as well as without. His predecessor had permitted a witchhunt against those in the church who were thought in any way to have parted from Catholic doctrine. A network of spies reported any seeming deviation to the Vatican. The election of Benedict XV ended the tale-telling.

A church in retreat?

Papal names, at least in modern times, are significant. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not lightly have chosen the title of Benedict XVI. The cardinal’s choice may have been inspired by the academically-minded Benedict XV (and perhaps even more by the 18th-century Benedict XIV): until unsettled by the student revolts of 1968, Joseph Ratzinger was a university lecturer in theology. It is possible, however, that he chose the name because his 20th-century namesake was a reconciler, someone who brought to an end the tensions in the church which arose out of what became known as the “modernist crisis”.

The modernist crisis had many levels. One of its more important aspects was the attempt to apply modern scholarship to age-old truths. Some who have lived through the pontificate of John Paul II may think that the persecutions of theologians the crisis involved were repeated during his twenty-six years. Does the choice of title indicate that Benedict XVI, like Benedict XV, wants to put an end to this persecution?

The Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, expressed the hope (before the conclave’s outcome was announced) that the next pontificate would at least allow the discussion of “dispute questions”. Somehow the election of Josepsh Ratzinger does not give the impression, on his past performance as the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer, that this will be so.

The test, as I wrote in openDemocracy after Pope John Paul II’s death, is “collegiality” – a more diffused responsibility for the governance of the Catholic church. This term, elaborated at the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65, implied the collaboration of all the bishops – the college of bishops – in the government of the universal church.

As a young theologian Joseph Ratzinger was involved in “Vatican II”. He at first embraced wholeheartedly the doctrine of collegiality. It was a position from which he has spectacularly retreated. Does the choice of “Benedict” indicate a willingness to play the role of reconciler, which would entail greater recognition of the part to be played by synodal government in the life of the Catholic church? Cardinal Ratzinger has resisted this. Will Benedict XVI be any more sympathetic?

But there is another, and more worrying, possibility behind the choice of Benedict. Pope Paul VI made Saint Benedict, “the father of monks”, patron saint of Europe because his monks were believed to have kept alive traditions of European culture amid barbarian invasion. Does Cardinal Ratzinger think that we now live in just such a dark age, and that the church is the sole preserver of true humanity? If that is the case, then the world and a dwindling Catholic church will go in opposite directions. It is a scenario which alarms many Catholics. It may not cause concern to Pope Benedict XVI.

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