Benedict, Pope, XVI

views updated Jun 08 2018

Pope Benedict XVI

German theologian Joseph Ratzinger (born 1927) took the name Pope Benedict XVI following the death of the immensely popular Pope John Paul II in 2005. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, he had been responsible for enforcing many of the conservative theological stances of his predecessor within the Catholic hierarchy, and his actions in the first weeks and months of his papacy were closely scrutinized by observers keen on finding clues to the direction he would take as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest religious body.

Upon his election as pope, two distinct pictures of Benedict XVI emerged. He was seen as a strict conservative, as a staunch defender of the Christian faith generally in an increasingly secular and spiritually multivalent world, and of Catholicism as the one true church. Some theologians who had crossed doctrinal swords with Ratzinger in the past had ended up disciplined in some way, and his detractors gave him unflattering nicknames such as God's Rottweiler. Yet those who knew the new pope well described a very different individual: an erudite yet warm presence who inspired those who studied and worked with him, a lover of music and of cats, and a thinker who drew on the church's deepest traditions, cherishing intellectual give-and-take even with those whose positions he did not share.

Fascinated by Catholic Liturgy

Born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Germany, Ratzinger grew up in the small town of Traunstein in the southern German region of Bavaria. His father Joseph was a policeman who took a dim view of the Nazi ideology that was on the rise, and later suffered a job demotion as a result. Bavaria was the heartland of German Catholicism, and the church's complex and all-encompassing rituals moved Ratzinger. "The Church year gave the time its rhythm, and I experienced that with great gratitude and joy already as a child," Ratzinger wrote in a memoir quoted by Anthony Grafton in a New Yorker magazine survey of Ratzinger's writings. "It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar." Ratzinger learned Latin as a teenager and went on to master a total of eight languages, including ancient Greek and Hebrew.

Even the horrors of World War II did not shake Ratzinger's developing immersion in the life of faith. Indeed, Catholicism served him as a something of a refuge as he was forced to join the Hitler Youth organization in 1941, and was drafted into the army and assigned to guard a BMW factory where prisoners of war worked. Although he never saw combat, he later was sent out to set tank booby traps in eastern Germany. During this mission, he saw a trainload of Hungarian Jews on its way to a concentration camp. As German resistance dissolved in 1945, Ratzinger deserted his post. He was captured and briefly held as an American prisoner of war in 1945. Shortly thereafter he was released, and he made his way back to his little hometown and its comforting cycles of Catholic spirituality.

After the war he enrolled at St. Michael's Seminary in Traunstein, Germany and realized, as Munich Archbishop Michael von Faulhaber celebrated Mass in the city's great cathedral, that his beloved Catholic Church had survived the war more or less intact. He had wanted to become a priest since he was a teenager, and now his life's direction was set. Ratzinger's brother Georg and sister Maria both devoted themselves to the Church as well; Georg became the director of the internationally known Regensburg Cathedral Choir, and Maria served as Joseph Ratzinger's personal secretary. Ratzinger was ordained in 1951 and moved on for further theological and philosophical study at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.

Wrote Dissertation about St. Augustine

It was Ratzinger's writings as a graduate student that first got him noticed in German theological circles. His doctoral dissertation was about St. Augustine, the North-African Christian mystic philosopher of late antiquity who did much to define a realm of Christian thought and existence that was separate from the everyday world. Asked later by an interviewer what books he would take with him if he were to be marooned on a desert island, Ratzinger named the Bible and Augustine's Confessions. German universities vied for his services in the 1950s and 1960s, and even after he became ensconced in the Catholic hierarchy later on he retained a fondness for intellectual discussion and sought it out whenever he could. He began teaching at Freising College in Augsburg in 1958, moved to the University of Bonn in 1959 and the University of Münster in 1963, and was recruited by one of Germany's top theologians and most renowned public intellectuals, Swiss-born Hans Küng, to teach at the University of Tübingen in 1966.

By that time, Ratzinger was a recognized expert on Catholic theology. As such, he was invited to serve at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) as a theological consultant to Archbishop Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany, one of the central figures of that groundbreaking reform conclave. Ratzinger as a young writer was considered a reformer like Küng, and he inquired in some of his writings as to the limits of papal power. According to his biographer John Allen, Ratzinger spoke of a "horizontal Catholicity" made up of bishops and lay church members that should function as a counterpart to centralized church power in Rome. It was Ratzinger who wrote a section of Frings' speech at Vatican II that condemned the Spanish Inquisition as a scandal. Ratzinger wrote a textbook, Introduction to Christianity, in 1968.

In May of 1968, campuses across Europe erupted in student protests, some of them violent. Ratzinger's negative reaction to the leftist movement brought about a sharp change in his overall outlook, and he turned from a reformer into a doctrinal conservative and into a defender of faith as the word has traditionally been understood. He himself believed that his views had gradually evolved rather than dramatically shifted—"I see no break in my views as a theologian," he told Time, but he moved to the conservative new University of Regensburg in 1969. He founded a widely read journal of Catholic ideas, Comunio, in 1972. In 1977 he was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI and became Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Oversaw Catholic Doctrine

Pope John Paul II named Ratzinger head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981—the office that had once carried out what was known as the Inquisition. In this post, he was the chief overseer of Catholic doctrine. Over the years, Ratzinger consistently reaffirmed traditional church teachings on birth control, homosexuality (which he once, according to People, called "an intrinsic moral evil"), divorce, priestly celibacy, and other hot-button issues on which American Catholics increasingly challenged Rome's authority while Europeans simply shrugged as church attendance dropped. He was one of the few church figures to read the much-discussed Third Prophecy said to have been given by an apparition of the Virgin Mary to a Portuguese girl, Lucia dos Santos, in 1917, but his few comments on the matter did little to dampen speculation as to the message's contents.

He played a key role in severely limiting the reach of the activist liberation theology movement that flourished in much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, believing that the movement erred in associating salvation too closely with good works. Ratzinger required one of the movement's leaders, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, to stop writing and teaching. He also worked to limit the influence of his former mentor Hans Küng, who was quoted by David van Biema of Time as saying that a conversation with Ratzinger was like talking with the "head of the KGB," the secret police of the Communist-era Soviet Union.

Ratzinger's hard work was rewarded with a steady rise into John Paul's inner circle. In 1998 he became Vice Dean of the College of Cardinals, and in 2002 Pope John Paul II approved his selection as Dean—making Ratzinger, at the very least, a figure of key importance in the selection of the next pope. After the death of the much-beloved John Paul on April 2, 2005, speculation centered on whether the College of Cardinals would opt for continuity with John Paul's conservatism or change direction in some way. Campaigning for the papacy was done only in the subtlest of ways, but the 78-year-old Ratzinger did not avail himself even of those; he made no secret of his desire to return to a life of quiet study in Germany after his 25-year-stint as doctrinal point man. Nevertheless, after a relatively brief two-day papal conclave of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger was elected pope on the fourth ballot. He took the name Benedict XVI in honor of St. Benedict, one of the great fathers of Catholic monasticism.

Fed Stray Cats

Portraits of the new pope emerged in the press. Many of his associates described him as gentle and took issue with any attempt to characterize him as a hard-liner, asserting that he listened carefully to all sides of an issue and was open to divergent views. In answering a question, wrote the pope's friend George Weigel in Newsweek, Benedict "pauses, reflects—and then speaks in complete paragraphs (in his fourth language)." It emerged that Benedict XVI liked Mozart and Beethoven, played the piano himself, and fed stray cats near the Vatican, some of which would come running when he passed by. Animal-rights groups uncovered remarks in which Benedict condemned factory farms and gave the new pope high marks.

With the Catholic Church in the throes of large-scale international change, some observers suggested that the selection of the aging Ratzinger was designed to install a caretaker in advance of a larger transition that might see the election of the first non-European pope or even one from the rapidly growing archdioceses of the Third World. In his first months as pope, Benedict embarked on a series of initiatives that quickly dispelled any idea that his would be a low-key papacy.

He plunged into an Italian vote that would have ended restrictions on in-vitro fertilization, leading the ultimately successful attempt to defeat the measure. Asked in the wake of terrorist bombings of London's underground subway on July 7, 2005, whether he considered Islam a religion of peace, Benedict was noncommittal; Time's van Biema quoted him as saying that "I wouldn't want to label it with big general words. Certainly there are also elements that can favor peace and other elements. We must try to find the best elements to help." In the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that plagued American Catholicism especially, Benedict, who had downplayed initial reports of the scandal and pointed out that it involved only a tiny minority of priests, issued new instructions banning active homosexuals and those with strong homosexual tendencies from the priesthood. On his first pilgrimage outside Rome, he broached the idea of a rapprochement between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church; the two branches of Christianity had diverged almost a century before.

In general, Benedict seemed to emphasize a theme sounded, in various inflections, by many other religious leaders: he called for spiritual renewal. As quoted by van Biema, he called the West "a world that is tired of its own culture … that has arrived at a time in which there's no more evidence of the need for God, much less Christ, and in which it seems that man alone can make himself." Though he did not have, and did not seek to possess, the star quality of John Paul II, he drew crowds comparable to those that had flocked to Rome's St. Peter's Square to catch a glimpse of his predecessor. Young Catholics meeting in Cologne, Germany, in August of 2005 at the church's World Youth Day, where John Paul had been warmly venerated, began to regard him with equal affection. Beyond his positions on specific issues, Pope Benedict XVI saw a return to faith as an answer for a world in spiritual crisis, and he began anew to work to defend and extend the faith that had yielded such rewards in his own life.


Allen, John L., Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, Continuum, 2000.

――――――, Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger, Continuum, 2005.


America, May 9, 2005.

New Yorker, July 25, 2005.

Newsweek, May 2, 2005; August 15, 2005; November 7, 2005.

People, May 2, 2005.

Time, May 2, 2005; August 8, 2005.


"Benedict XVI," Official Vatican website, (November 5, 2005).


views updated May 18 2018

sanbenito under the Spanish Inquisition, a penitential garment of yellow cloth, resembling a scapular in shape, ornamented with a red St Andrew's cross before and behind, worn by a confessed and penitent heretic; also, a similar garment of a black colour ornamented with flames, devils, and other devices (sometimes called a samarra) worn by an impenitent confessed heretic at an auto-da-fé.


views updated May 11 2018

sanbenito (under the Sp. Inquisition) penitent heretic's garment. XVI. — Sp. sambenito, f. San Benito St. Benedict; so called ironically from its resemblance in shape to the Benedictine scapular.