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The Ratzinger Report: Beginning a dialogue on the new pope

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The Ratzinger Report

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Beginning a dialogue on the new pope

By Tom Hayden

The new pope has been anointed with a halo by many in the media, but he represents a sharp rejection of global democratic trends that began in the sixties, a new alliance between the Vatican and the White House, and a critical challenge for those attempting to counter the power of the religious right.

Political insiders are aware of the decisive role played by Joseph Ratzinger, now the pontiff, in the 2004 election of George Bush over John Kerry. Last summer, as the Pope’s guardian of church doctrine, Ratzinger announced through American pastors that Catholic voters were “guilty of formal cooperation in evil” if they supported any candidate with “permissive” views on abortion or euthanasia. Ratzinger simultaneously gave Catholic voters a pass on the Iraq War, which the church had originally opposed, asserting that there was a legitimate diversity of Catholic opinion about the war (and the death penalty) but not about abortion or assisted death. The increased Catholic vote in Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico was the margin of Bush’s victory there. (see Sidney Blumenthal, Salon.com, April 2005)

Bush’s victory climaxed a growing alliance the Vatican and the pro-Bush Christian coalition favoring a conservative backlash against the liberalizing and democratic winds of the sixties. Both men, and their coalitions, denounce what Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism” in his speech to the cardinals before the Vatican election. “Relativism”, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. No one believes in the moral equivalence of pollution and pollution prevention, fascism and equality, for example. As for the “ liberty” promoted by both leaders,, it is hard to reconcile with either Bush’s Patriot Act or Ratzinger’s pattern of silencing theologians.

One prominent defender of the new pope is Michael Novak, a theologian aligned with Republican conservatives and longtime foe of liberation theology. Likening the pope to “a country pastor” in the New York Times (April 20), Novak never mentions Ratzinger’s censoring of numerous theologians, but insists that the new pope is “misunderstood” on liberty, and is “very jealous in thinking about it.” He opposes socialism, statism and authoritarianism, but also “worries” that democracy “is exceedingly vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority”, to “a soft despotism”, and to “doing whatever you please.” But if statism is ruled out, and democracy is worrisome, what remains but systems of private control?

The pope – like the president – has “worries” about majority rule, the core of the democratic process. If a majority deem abortion legal, democracy has condoned evil. If professors can profess their own views of the truth, democracy has become the dictatorship of relativism. Liberty is license unless integrated under fixed moral axioms and, in Bush’s case at least, free markets On this latter point, the Church has a long tradition of communal values rooted in the feudal era, which places it on the side of social welfare. But as we shall see, the new pope has aligned himself with conservative catholic groups, among them Opus Dei, that represent a shift from liberation theology to what might be called a special preference for the rich.

In the face of this alliance between Pope Benedict and President Bush, voices within religious congregations will need to challenge the right-wing political takeover of their faith traditions. On the outside, a “new reformation” may be stirring among people of faith who are excluded from the conservative drift. (see Matthew Fox, “A New Reformation?, Wisdom University Press, 2005). And political activists will have to address the increasing intervention of religion in politics, from Vatican denunciations of voting for evil to the growth of a federally-funded conservative constituency of faith-based networks. A near majority of federal elected officials now receive 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from right-wing Christian groups.

The President and the Pope, Bush and Benedict, may yet awaken a global resistance, a progressive movement that necessarily includes a central emphasis on a religious response.

Ratzinger and the sixties

Ratzinger was a papal advisor during the reformist moment of Vatican II, when a vision of participatory democracy swept the world. When the reforms challenged the centralized Vatican model, however, Ratzinger became “deeply troubled”, especially at the idea of a “church from below”, and the idea “of an ecclesial sovereignty of the people.” (nyt, april 24, 2005). Like the US neo-conservatives, Ratzinger’s history was that of liberal who, threatened by the radical student movements of the sixties, shifted to the authoritarian right.

Certainly the sixties upset conventional structures and thinking. The victory of the Cuban Revolution and the failures of CIA-supported christian democratic parties led to the rise of liberation theology across Latin America with its new form, the “base community”, mainly small groups of poor people interpreting the social meaning of the gospels in their own language. In the first world, feminists began to challenge the all-male celibate structure of Catholic power. A rising belief that the earth and cosmos were sacred also impacted Church teaching on the supposed dominion of human beings.

In an effort to modernize, the Vatican renamed its notorious Holy Office of the Inquisition, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths of women accused of witchcraft in medieval times, and renamed it the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, with Ratzinger serving as its director from 1979 under the leadership of Pope John Paul II.

Ratzinger’s move to the right came in 1969, when he was teaching at a university in Tubingen. The German SDS, a parallel to the American SDS, was leading militant anti-Vietnam protests across the country, including strikes against the university. I recently interviewed the German SDS president at the time, K.D.Wolff, now a publisher in Frankfurt. He recalled that Ratzinger was appalled by student interruptions in class and a takeover of the faculty lounge by some 25 activists. But most important, Wolff, thought, was Ratzinger’s attempt to close abortion counseling centers, many run by Catholic women. Ultimately, against the majority opinion of Germany’s bishops, Ratzinger would convince John Paul II to order the closure of the centers.

As head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office for twenty-five years, Ratzinger protected the Vatican’s authority against social movements inside and outside the Church. In the process, he allied closely with the Reagan Administration’s Catholic conservatives and neo-conservatives in their first term in power. He promoted militant right-wing movements in the church including Legionnaires for Christ, an integral part of the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina in the seventies, and the secretive and ascetic Opus Dei (made infamous in The Da Vinci Codes) which was closely associated with the Franco dictatorship in Spain. Ratzinger ensured the fast-tracking of Opus Dei’s founder, Escriva de Balaguer, to sainthood in 2002.

In 1968, Latin America’s bishops formally adopted liberation theology, threatening conservative hierarchies across the continent. Ratzinger engaged in a steady theological and organizational assault.. As an Peruvian Opus Dei priest recently declared: “We do not believe in class struggle. Only a leading class that has a social vision can lead countries like this out of poverty.” (nyt, may 8, 2005)

Ratzinger has opposed liberation theology for its “errors” of taking sides in the conflict between the rich and poor, its emphasis on oppression as a sin, and its incorporation of Marxist economic analysis. In 1984, he ordered the silencing of Brazil’s most important liberation theologist, Leonardo Boff, and Peru’s Gustavo Guttierez, widely considered the founder of Latin America’s liberation theology. He has criticized the World Council of Churches for funding “subversive movements” in Latin America. (nyt, april 20, 2005). Since his elevation as pope, Brazilian bishops have been criticizing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for his anti-Vatican positions on abortion, gay rights, and contraception.

In Chiapas,. Bishop Samuel Ruiz, originally a conservative, was shocked and radicalized by his early experiences among the indigenous people. He developed a popular church, training local people to become catechists and serve the poor. After the Zapatista uprising in 1994, Ruiz become the chief mediator between the rebels and the state, culminating in the San Andres Agreement of 1997. Ruiz had successfully “enculturated” the church among the local Mayan indigenous, but in doing so became a “threat” to Mexico’s stability. When Ruiz retired, Ratzinger assured a conservative replacement who would dismantle the catechists’ structure and resources flowing to autonomous Zaptatista communities.

The suppression of liberation theology paralleled, and in some ways was coordinated with the Reagan Administration’s war on Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Pope John Paul was outraged by Catholic clergy support of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, and especially by the inclusion of priests in the new government. In the same period, a State Department task force issued the “Santa Fe Declaration” which defined liberation theology as a threat to American interests in Latin America.

The Pope became personally angered at the new generation of radical theologians, symbolized by an incident during a 1983 visit to Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution, in which the Pope pointed his finger and scolded the poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in a receiving line at the airport. I recently interviewed a Sandinista who was present, the author Gioconda Belli, in Los Angeles, who recalled the incident vividly. “We [the Sandinistas] could only be accused of ‘planting’ a group of mothers of heroes and war victims in the receiving line. They had photos of their children, and that wanted to force the pope to condemn the war. They were chanting ‘queremos la paz’, that’s all. We had no interest whatsoever in the visit going badly. The wanted to give a good impression.”

But the pope was advised by Belli’s brother, Humberto, an anti-Sandinista, who flew from Rome with the pontiff’s delegation. “When the pope got off the plane, he was in a confrontatonal attitude, partly because of my brother.”

Ernesto Cardenal, she continued, didn’t even want to go to the airport. Compounding the problem, the pope was not planning to shake hands with anyone, but simply wave to the crowd. But for an unknown reason, he deviated and began working the reception line until he came to a kneeling Cardenal, waiting to kiss the papal ring. “You have no idea how nasty he became”, Belli said of the pope, waving his finger at a very non-confrontational Cerdenal. “You, my friend”, the Pope said in front of the television cameras, “need to address your situation”, referring to the fact that several priests had entered the Sandinista government. Later that day, at a huge papal mass, the pope shouted “silence” several times at protestors calling for peace – an issue he did not address. Instead he called for “obedience to the bishops and the pope”, lest they be “relegated to a position inferior to earthly considerations [or] unacceptable ideological commitments.”

The Vatican worked stifled the trends towards liberation theology, with Ratzinger becoming doctrinal enforcer. “With the analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology, we are clearly facing a fundamental danger for the faith of the church”, he declared in 1984.

- to be continued – Ratzinger on sex – a conversation with Harvey Cox, and more...

Original documents:

Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology, a Documentary History, Orbis, 1990

Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis, 2001

Boff, Leonardo and Clovis, Introducing Liberation Theology, Orbis, 1987

Further Reading:

Holy Spirit Watch