Benedict XVI: Curia Triumphans

by John Mackrell

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

How will the election of Cardinal Ratzinger affect the Church of Rome? Some have gone to desperate lengths in their search for an answer. One critic consoled himself with the thought that 'a man who loved cats, couldn't be all bad.' Others have praised Benedict XVI as an outstanding theologian and have stressed the personal charm of this cultivated man, who plays Mozart and is at ease trading witticisms with the German philosopher Habermas. Personal traits aside, Ratzinger's character - the key to interpreting his reign - was forged during the War and provided him with the perfect persona as a curialist.

Autobiographers commonly delight in sharing their emotions with their readers. Benedict XVI is unusual in his own autobiographical writings, Milestones, 1927-77 and Salt of the Earth, in repressing his feelings. Ratzinger is silent about the existence of a slave labour camp eight miles from his home town of Traunstein, as also of Dachau Concentration Camp further afield. Equally, he makes no mention of the heroic resistance in his area of the White Rose Group, led by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, both beheaded by the Nazis. The herding by the SS of emaciated concentration camp inmates through the streets of Traunstein on 3rd May 1945 appears to have made no impact on Ratzinger, though he was hiding there as an army deserter about that time. Ratzinger sometimes appears to have deplored the War, more for interrupting his theological studies, than as the shattering experience it was for more sensitive people. Arrested and forced to don his uniform, Ratzinger complained petulantly that 'it especially cut my good mother's heart' to see her son 'under the custody of heavily armed Americans' [1].

Outwardly unmoved, the War for Ratzinger, as most commentators agree, was, nonetheless, pivotal to his theological development. One explanation is that he was so traumatised by Nazi atrocities that he repressed his fears at the time. Later when they resurfaced, he gave them intellectualist expression in a way that was less threatening for a bookish man out of touch with his feelings. According to John L. Allen, one of the most insightful critics of the Pope, Ratzinger in the wake of the War, with all the passion of an ideologue, saw the Catholic Church as the sole guarantor of the truth. The teaching authority was all that protected the Church from becoming 'the plaything of outside forces - the state in a totalitarian system or secular culture in Western liberal democracies.' In the words of Fr Joseph Fessio, SJ, one of Ratzinger's students: 'The Nazis helped him understand the liberal mind. Liberals are as closed to genuine dialogue as fascists'. This extraordinary correlation of totalitarianism and democracy, so hard to credit, seems nonetheless the bedrock of Ratzinger's thought. In that way the suppressor of other people's ideas, claims to be the protector of liberty! [2]

Is it unfair to surmise that on moving to Rome, Ratzinger transplanted well from one authoritarian regime to another? Some may object that insufficient account is being taken of Ratzinger's short liberal phase, while he was the protege of Hans Kung at Tubingen University and peritus to the reformist Cardinal Frings at the second Vatican Council. Yet, it seems that he was soon frightened by the whirlwind unleashed by the Council - fears which were reinforced by the student riots of 1968, when the microphone was seized briefly from his own professorial lectern. Was that the moment when he put secular society on a par with the Nazis, as a threat to the Church?

For twenty-three years before winning the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger enforced the will of John Paul II, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Inquisition. Never since Torquemada in fifteenth-century Spain has doctrinal orthodoxy been imposed with so much enthusiasm and so efficiently. That Rome's CDF lives up to its sixteenth-century reputation is borne out in The Modern Inquisition (2005) by Paul Collins, who describes the CDF's 'processes' as 'secretive, inquisitorial, often blatantly unfair to the accused and lack[ing] any application of the basic principles of human rights.' Accusers are anonymous, prosecutors double up as judges, guilt is presumed, with naturally no right of appeal. Hans Kung and Charles Curran are only the best known theologians of some 100 other victims of Ratzinger's summary inquisition [3].

That Ratzinger has not mellowed in recent years is all too clear from the Reese Affair. Fr Thomas Reese SJ was the editor of America, the United States equivalent of The Tablet. The CDF for more than three years had been goading the Jesuit leadership to give Fr Reese the axe. 'Is Thomas Reese', one observer pondered, 'the last victim of the Ratzinger-led CDF or the first casualty of the Benedict XVI papacy?' The CDF was incensed by the suggestion in America that condoms might be used to prevent Aids, that Rome should relax its hardline in Dominus Jesus on religious pluralism and should print an article on homosexual priests [4].

What is the likely effect on the Roman Church of Benedict XVI's pontificate? Supporters of the Vatican Council and traditionalists both anticipate the continuation of John Paul II's hard-line Catholicism. The Pope's many supporters argue persuasively that greater discipline will help to create a leaner Church, better equipped to survive in an increasingly secular environment. All those Roman Catholics, who yearn for absolute certainty in belief and strict rules of conduct, rejoice in the succession of Benedict XVI. They seem to experience a pleasurable frisson, as they await the smack of his authority, as it lands on others, the users of contraceptives, gays, the divorced, aspiring women priests and not least liberal theologians. And yet, they may be disappointed. The Pope in his recent sermons has emphasized the need for reconciliation. Benedict XVI may even be the first pope in modern times to refrain from voicing his condemnation of 'illicit' sex. While implicitly endorsing his predecessor's strictures, Benedict XVI may feel that this fascinating topic has now been exhausted. Even the Pope's gestures towards ecumenism could be genuine. As Benedict XVI's greatest fear appears to be of liberal values in society, he might well seek allies among conservative Christians in other denominations.

How is the Ecclesia Cogitans likely to respond to the new papacy? Many of those who had hoped against hope for spiritual renewal seem likely to leave the Church in despair. An exclusionist Church, so far removed from the 'loving inclusiveness of Jesus Christ', can hardly appeal beyond those driven by a primitive fear of Hell Fire. Many Catholic intellectuals will probably now feel that the joint repression of John Paul II and his former enforcer and present successor, have made the institutional church irreformable. Not only have virtually all theologians in the Vatican II mould been silenced or marginalized, but the removal of Thomas Reese from the editorial chair of America has shown that censorship is now reaching beyond books to mainstream Catholic periodicals. The invisible self-censorship of those afraid to attract the CFD's attention has stifled the writings of many theologians, some of whom, in their lectures, fire the faith of small groups away from the public eye, but are lost to the Church as a whole.

Optimists may comfort themselves with the hope that the CFD has pushed its victory too far for its own good. The maintenance of a Counter-Reformation style inquisition in the twenty-first century is a magnificent tour de force, while seen by many as being at odds with a religion based on love, understanding and respect for others. The whole conduct of the papal election - a subject too vast to consider here - casts an aura of illegitimacy over the result, which in time may rebound against the incumbent. Like his Renaissance predecessor, Pope Julius, Benedict XVI would be prudent to review his troops. How far can he rely on the often disaffected religious orders - the Jesuits, the Dominicans and the increasingly radical missionaries? With the mounting shortage of priests and the increased participation of a less easily disciplined laity, how long will the hierarchy be able to enforce tight control over the parishes? There are signs of disaffection among the bishops in Belgium, Austria and even Spain, though not, of course, in subservient Britain. If just one European country ceased to defer to Rome, curial centralisation could be at risk. Benedict XVI would be prudent to pray that the tide of political reaction in Europe and the Americas continues to flow in his favour. Otherwise, he may find that true Christianity and secular liberal values have more in common than a career curialist might think.


  1. Robert Blair Kaiser, The Chronicle Review, 13 May 2005, p. 13: The Independent, 22 April 2005, p. 23. [back]
  2. John L. Allen, 'The Vatican's Enforcer', National Catholic Reporter, April 1999, pp. 13-20, p. 15. [back]
  3. Kaiser, p. 13. [back]
  4. The Tablet, 14 May, p. 8. [back]

John Mackrell is a retired lecturer in French History and a member of Catholics for a Changing Church.