RATZNGER, hammer of the heretics, the Panzer who rolled over liberation theolOgy, is a charming man and an excellent theologian. He gets his ogre-image partly from his job.
In his previous existence as professor in Munster, Tubingen and Regensburg, he dealt with theologians he did not like by reviewing them fiercely. This was all good clean stimulating academic fun. They answered his reviews, and theological dialogue advanced. One such student was Leonardo Boff, then a Brazilian Franciscan.
When Kung and Ratzinger were colleagues in Tubingen, Kung made a tart remark that was not forgotten: "If you want to be a cardinal in Germany today, you have to start practising early." Ratzinger became archbishop of Munich and a cardinal in 1977.
Four years later Ratzinger became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His relationship to theologians changed utterly. No longer an equal, he became in their regard judge, jury and executioner.
Instead of a hostile review, the theologian who incurred his displeasure now risked losing his job and forfeiting his "mandate to teach as a Catholic theologian." This fate befell Hans Kung in 1979. That was pre-Ratzinger, but he was involved and it secured him his Roman post.
Despite his outward serenity and love of Mozart, Ratzinger seems like an anxious, troubled man. Some have attributed his pessimistic Outlook to his studies of St Augustine. It is true that he studied Augustine deeply.
He read Augustine's De Civirate Del as a defence against the charge that Christians were anarchist or subversive in the collapsing Roman Empire. But from it he also learned that the city of God or the kingdom of God will never exist on this earth: they remain somewhere over the eschatological horizon. Attempts to create "heaven on earth" fail miserably. Utopia is precisely nowhere.
As he says sufficiently in an essay on democracy: "The New Testament is aware of political ethics but not of political theology." A somewhat gnomic utterance. It means, I think, that while you cannot deduce any political system from the Gospels, that does not mean that political systems escape all moral scrutiny.
Ratzinger the man peeps through his formal and rather abstruse formulations. We see him walking through the streets of Rome noting the graffitti on the walls. In the next street to where he lives he noted "True socialism is anarchy" and "Anarchy is freedom in equality."
These seemed to him harmless enough. But what he calls "an "angry seriousness" returns with the slogan, "Neither Christ nor Marx, the people's struggle." That is closer to the nerve edge. He prudently disdained to notice "Jesuits, Assasins," which has a long history in Roman graffiti and grand opera.
Everyone who writes about Ratzinger contrasts the "liberal" at the Council with "conservative" he later became. There is a misunderstanding here. He acquired his liberal reputation only because when young, 35, he drafted the powerful speech in which Cardinal Frings, archbishop of Cologne, thrashed the Holy Office and its unjust secretive methods.
It was such an effective speech that after it the Holy Office simply could not go on as before. Paul VI change its name and its purpose. Instead of repressing errors, it was to encourage positive theology.
With the International Theological Commission (ITC) aiding it, 30 theologians from all over the world, it would turn over a new leaf and usher in a new era of consultation.
All of which did happen, up to a point. Still on the crest of the wave of conciliar enthusiasm, Ratzingcr contributed to the first number of Concil
ium, the multi-language review, in September 1965. His article was on the rights of episcopal conferences.
What changed him? The best answer I've heard comes from people who were around in Tubingen in 1968. All Europe, or at least all student Europe, was up in arms in 1968. Professors were to be reduced to "resourcepersons," comparable to dictionaries or encyclopaedias on the shelf.
in Herbert Marcuse, that shooting star, Marxism combined with Freud to produce a mix labelled "polymorphous perversity." That meant: anything goes. There were student occupations of faculty building. There were the "events of Paris." Ratzinger became alarmed, and flipped. The principle of authority had been flouted, in Church and state, it was also the year of Humanae Vitae.
A friend reports how he visited Ratzinger in 1969 and noted the change that came over him. His unmarried sister acted as his secretary and housekeeper. When a visitor arrived she threw a sheet over her brother's desk so that the visitor could not see what he was working on.
This childish protectiveness was carried on into his Roman period. The sister died in September 1992.
Every summer Ratzinger meets with his former doctoral students for a week of prayer and theological discussion. They do not always agree with him. He doffs his prefectorial hat. They meet somewhere in the Alps, half way between Germany and Italy. Bressanone in South Tyrol is a favourite trystingplace.
Those qualifying for this annual event report that it is relaxed and informal. He has no side. However, one of his doctoral students, Siegfried Wiedenhofer, author of an excellent book on ecclesiology, returned home from one sucli exercise to find that he was denied the right to take up a professional chair in Graz, Austria, to which he had been duly appointed.
His offence? Never explained. Perhaps it was that he was a married layperson. Perhaps too many friends who signed the Cologne declaration. Perhaps his face didn't fit.
Can Ratzinger go further? I think he has peaked. A good second-in-command cannot rise to the top. Strictly speaking, though with a Pope who considers himself a Second Moses, this hardly matters, Ratzinger should not be in office at all. Prefects of Roman Congregations have a five-year term, renewable once only. Ratzinger finished his second five-year term in November 1991.
He ought, therefore, to have gone back home to Munich. A pity. The man is happier doing theology than censoring his peer-group. So long as he stays in Rome he is likely to devote most of his time not to theology but to defending the Catechism of the Catholic Church, produced under his auspices. This is what he did in Jerusalem last month.
Splendid though the Catechism is, theology cannot be reduced to commenting on it. Theology, like the faith it articulates, must be constantly in touch with the sources, the Scriptures and the fathers, and with contemporary experience.
Sometimes he gives the impression that he can find nothigg good to say about the modern world. He has a theory to account for its badness. Europe went wrong with the Enlightenment. It became impossible to know or define the good in a public sense. Thus truth became "subjective."
Seen in this way Veritatis Splendor can be seen as an heroic attempt to restore objective morality to Europe. There is right and wrong, and we can know which is which.
But there is another aspect to this view of the world. The Enlightenment spawned two offspring. Marxism with its secularized Jewish messianism believed that a heaven could be created here below provided an alienating God was left out of the equation. "Man is the supreme being for man,"said Marx (using non-inclusive language).
The sham has been exposed by history, seen off by the events of 1989. Booted off the scene. Good riddance.
But the other child of the Enlightenment is "liberalism," understood as that live-andlet-live tolerance which follows when societies are no longer able to define the public good. But if onc is not careful, this leads to the conclusion that "democracy," as the expression of liberalism, is not worth defending.
Ratzinger has not yet drawn that conclusion. But he is on a slippery slope towards it. Note how often he reminds us that "the Church is not a democracy", as though this evident fact made consultation unnecessary and authoritarianism a virtue.
The last word, though, must be one of praise. Ratzinger knows his theology. He is therefore able to restrain some of Pope John Paul's enthusiasms.
The East German theologian, Wilhelm Ernst, once pointed out to Pope John Paul that there had never been an infallible definition on a moral question.
The Pope replied, Ernst told me: "Well, there's always a first time." Evidently he would have liked to make Humanae Vitae retrospectively infallible. Ratzinger convinced him that it could not be done.
There are no doubt other instances where Ratzinger's restraining hand has been at work, though it will take about a century to find out just how.
John Henry Newman pointed out in the fifth chapter of his Apologia that no theological innovation had ever come from Rome, that one should not expect it, and that such was not its function.
Its role was to act as a breakwater, remora, testing all things, retaining only what is good. Somebody has to do this job. Cardinal Ratzinger does it well. Rather him than me.