Daniel Williams | Vatican City | November 7
WaPo – The strict line on Catholic dogma by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has earned the chief Vatican guardian of orthodoxy a host of nicknames: the Enforcer, the Fundamentalist, and Panzerkardinal, a German neologism that compares the Bavarian-born prelate to a battle tank.
Ratzinger has long been one of Pope John Paul II’s closest collaborators. But he has recently taken on an exceptional role as the Vatican’s most forceful voice on a range of important and controversial issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when the ailing pope is seen and heard less and less by the public, Ratzinger’s prominence has earned him another nickname in ecclesiastic gossip: John Paul III.
”Cardinal Ratzinger is a singular figure in the history of his office and perhaps the church,” said Gianni Baget Bozzo, a theologian who specializes in the Vatican. ”He takes the initiative on a wide range of subjects in a way that is usually reserved to the pope. That’s not to say he acts against the pope. He is trusted. But he is a kind of vice pope.”
”He is certainly very visible,” said Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. ”He has always been extremely strong, given the pope’s friendship and confidence. He keeps his finger in everything.”
Ratzinger’s visibility and the pope’s frailty have reawakened the question of who is in charge at the Vatican. Some observers predicted that he would be a strong candidate to succeed John Paul II. His conservatism fits with the thinking of most of the cardinal electors picked by John Paul II. But at 77, Ratzinger is the oldest of the so-called papabili, cardinals frequently mentioned as papal candidates.
”In spite of his age, Ratzinger has recently jumped to the top of the list of candidates,” wrote one Vatican watcher, Sandro Magister, in L’Espresso magazine recently. ”Some look at him as if he were already de facto pope, the stony defender of the faith in a church under attack from modernity.”
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger has made several waves over the past year. Top among them was a letter he sent in August to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington advising clergy that they must deny Communion to supporters of abortion rights who, he said, persist in cooperating in what he termed a ”grave sin.” The note also provided advice on how Catholic voters should proceed when faced with a choice that included a political candidate who supported abortion rights.
No names were mentioned, but several American bishops had spoken out against Senator John F. Kerry, when he was the Democrats’ presidential candidate, for his views on abortion. In the end, the US bishops decided to leave these decisions to individual prelates.
”Ratzinger was either naive by thinking such a letter would not be made public or wanted to make a statement against Kerry,” said a high-ranking Vatican official. ”If he really wanted his advice [to remain] private, he could have sent someone to speak to McCarrick.”
In August, Ratzinger told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Turkey, a largely Muslim country, ought not be admitted to the European Union. ”Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. The roots that have formed it . . . are those of Christianity,” he said. ”Turkey, which is considered a secular country but is founded upon Islam, could instead attempt to bring a cultural continent together with some neighboring Arab countries.”
Ratzinger said he was expressing a personal opinion. But such is the perception of Ratzinger’s weight in the Vatican that diplomats quickly besieged Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, with queries about Vatican opinion, diplomats assigned to the Holy See said. He responded that the Vatican was neutral on the issue.
There is no indication that the pope is dissatisfied with Ratzinger’s views or activities. Vatican officials said Ratzinger was too busy to be interviewed for this article and declined to discuss him on the record.
John Paul II has referred to the German theologian as his ”trustworthy friend.” They became acquainted four decades ago at the Second Vatican Council, which laid out proposed changes to the church under Pope John XXIII. Ratzinger has headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981, three years after John Paul II became pope. The congregation is the historical successor to the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, one of the oldest departments in the Vatican. Sometimes, it is known as the Holy Office. John Paul II has said its functions are ”to promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.”
Observers said Ratzinger’s views have been heavily influenced by the harrowing experience of two contending ideologies: fascism, which he experienced as a youth in Germany, and the Marxism rife in German universities during the 1960s.
He has fought against trends in ecumenism that suggest that Catholicism is but one of many ways to salvation. On issues of sex, morality, and ethics, he minces no words. He called homosexuality an ”intrinsic moral evil.”
Ratzinger has also defended the Vatican from criticism. At the height of the priest sex-abuse scandal in the United States, he blamed the uproar on a media conspiracy.
Vatican observers said that under Ratzinger, the Holy Office has become the lead Vatican department. A recent example, specialists said, was a letter on women, addressed to bishops worldwide. The letter criticized forms of feminism that made women ”adversaries” of men. Ratzinger wrote that the blurring of sexual identity had ”made homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent.”