Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 25, 2005
From guiding light to 'il papa'
Pope Benedict has expounded on topics from liturgy to liberation
By Catholic News Service and WCR sources
As the guiding light on doctrinal issues during Pope John Paul II's pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI is considered one of the most respected, influential and controversial members of the College of Cardinals.
Since 1981 the 78-year-old Pope Benedict - regarded as one of the Church's sharpest theologians - has headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with defending orthodoxy in virtually every area of Church life.
Over the years, Pope Benedict met quietly once a week with Pope John Paul to discuss doctrinal and other major issues facing the Church. Insiders said his influence was second to none when it came to setting Church priorities and directions and responding to moral and doctrinal challenges.
From November 2002 until his election, he was dean of the College of Cardinals, a key position in the time between popes. Pope Benedict presided over the preconclave meetings of cardinals in Rome, set agendas for discussion and action, and was responsible for a number of procedural decisions during the conclave.
White-haired and soft-spoken, Pope Benedict comes across in person as a thoughtful and precise intellectual with a dry sense of humour. Before his election, he lived in an apartment just outside the Vatican's St. Anne's Gate. He walked to work daily across St. Peter's Square, rarely attracting people's notice.
A frequent participant at Vatican press conferences, he is a familiar figure to the international group of reporters who cover the Church.
He is also well-known by the Church hierarchy around the world, and his speeches at cardinal consistories, synods of bishops and other assemblies often have the weight of a keynote address. When Pope Benedict spoke as a cardinal, people listened.
Sometimes his remarks were bluntly critical on such diverse topics as dissident theologians, liberation theology, "abuses" in lay ministry, homosexuality, women as priests, feminism among nuns, premarital sex, abortion, liturgical reform and rock music.
As Pope John Paul's pontificate developed, some Vatican observers said Pope Benedict's influence grew.
"He's become the last check on everything, the final word on orthodoxy. Everything is passed through his congregation," one Vatican official said.
Pope Benedict's theological ideas are based on years of study, pastoral ministry and Vatican experience.
Born in Marktl am Inn on Holy Saturday, April 16, 1927, the son of a rural policeman, the pope moved with his family - his parents, Joseph and Mary, and a brother and sister - several times during his younger years.
In his memoir, My Life: Recollections 1927-1977, the future pope wrote, "Personally, I have always been grateful for the fact that, in this way, my life was from the very beginning immersed in the paschal mystery, since it could not be seen as anything but a sign of benediction.
"Of course, my birth was not on Easter Sunday, but on Holy Saturday. And yet, the more I reflect, the more it seems characteristic of our human existence, which still awaits Easter, is still not in full light, but confidently sets out toward the light."
In the book, he recalled the joy of Easter in his childhood: "For the entire Holy Week the windows of the church were covered by black coverings, so that the church, even in daytime, was immersed in a darkness dense with mystery.
"But the instant the parish priest sang out the verse that announced 'He is Risen!' the coverings were suddenly pulled back from the windows and a radiant light flooded into the entire church. It was the most impressive representation of the resurrection of Christ I can imagine."
At age 12, he entered the minor seminary but hated the regime of conformity. "At home, I had lived and studied in great freedom. . . . Now, compelled to study in a hall with 60 other boys, it was torture."
Also "torture" was the two hours of sports a day, "since I was not at all athletically inclined and was the smallest of all the boys in the school."
His priestly studies were soon interrupted by the Second World War.
Pope Benedict recalled that he was enrolled by school officials in the Hitler Youth program; he soon stopped going to meetings. After being drafted in 1943 he served for a year on an anti-aircraft unit that tracked Allied bombardments.
A year later, he was released. At the end of the war he spent time in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp before being released.
One of Pope Benedict's childhood teachers was enthusiastic about the Nazis.
"With great pomp, he caused a May tree to be raised and composed a sort of prayer to the symbol of the ever-renewed life force. That tree was intended to represent the beginning of the restoration of the Germanic religion, and contribute to the repression of Christianity, denounced as an element alienating people from their great Germanic culture."
Pope Benedict went on to reflect: "Today, when I hear how in many parts of the world Christianity is accused of having destroyed local cultures, imposing European cultural values, I am astonished by how similar are the arguments used and how sadly familiar are certain rhetorical expressions."
Although even Germans who opposed the Nazis "felt a sort of patriotic satisfaction," the future pope's father was not taken in by their propaganda. "My father saw with unalterable clarity that the victory of Hitler would not be a victory for Germany but for Antichrist, and would be the beginning of apocalyptic times for all believers, and not only for them."
Ordained in 1951, the future Pope Benedict received a doctorate and a licentiate in theology from the University of Munich, where he studied until 1957. He taught dogma and fundamental theology at the University of Freising in 1958-59, then lectured at the University of Bonn, 1959-69, at Munster, 1963-66, and at Tubingen from 1966 to 1969. In 1969 he was appointed professor of dogma and of the history of dogmas at the University of Regensburg, where he also served as vice president until 1977.
"My father saw with unalterable clarity that the victory of Hitler would not be a victory for Germany but for Antichrist."
- Pope Benedict XVI
A theological consultant to West German Cardinal Joseph Frings, he came to the Second Vatican Council as an expert or peritus. At the council, he was said to have played an influential role in discussions among the German-speaking participants and gained a reputation as a progressive theologian.
In his recollections of the council, Pope Benedict said liturgical reform did not constitute a priority for the majority of council fathers. When the document on the liturgy was approved, it "seemed unlikely to spark polemics," he wrote.
"It would never have occurred to any father to see in this text a 'revolution' which would signify 'the end of the Middle Ages,' as some theologians have argued since."
Nevertheless, Pope Benedict was an enthusiastic supporter of Vatican II reforms. But soon after the council, he began to worry about trends in popular theology. His concern heightened as German theological faculties became heavily influenced by Marxist ideology.
Although he had been one of the founders of the international theological review Concilium, his disquiet over the liberal trends in that publication led him to help start a competing publication, Communio, which argued for adherence to the actual teachings of Vatican II.
When the new Roman Missal was promulgated in 1970, Pope Benedict said, "I was shocked by the prohibition of the old missal, since such a thing had never occurred in the entire previous history of the liturgy."
He saw the liturgical changes as having tragic consequences. "I am persuaded that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in large part on the collapse of the liturgy, which is sometimes conceived as something in which it does not matter whether God exists and speaks to us and listens to us."
In a 1997 book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict further expressed his concerns with the liturgy.
"In our liturgical reform there is the tendency, in my view mistaken, to adapt the liturgy completely to the modern world."
Returning to the Old Mass is not a solution, he said. But there must be more reverence in the Mass and better liturgical education. "Liturgical science does not exist to continually produce new models, as may be the case for the automobile industry. It exists to draw man into the feasts and celebrations, to prepare man to receive the Mystery."
After Vatican II, Pope Benedict published several major books, including Introduction to Christianity, Dogma and Revelation and Eschatology. He was named a member of the International Theological Commission in 1969.
Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 and a cardinal the following year.
Having devoted his life to study, he was not enthused about becoming a bishop. "It was an immensely difficult decision for me," he recalled.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II asked him to come to Rome. Again, he resisted. "I objected that I felt so bound to theology that I desired to have the right to continue to publish works of a private nature and didn't know whether that would be compatible with this new task."
Since then, the world has known him as the Vatican's enforcer. He made the biggest headlines when his congregation silenced or excommunicated theologians, helped rewrite liturgical translations, set boundaries on ecumenical dialogues, took over the handling of cases of clergy sex abuse against minors, and curbed the role of bishops' conferences.
In 2003, the doctrinal congregation issued a document that said Catholic politicians must not ignore essential Church teachings, particularly on human life. That set the stage for a long debate during the 2004 U.S. election on whether Democratic Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who supports legalized abortion, should be given Communion.
In Canada, the document led Calgary's Bishop Fred Henry to say during last year's federal election that Catholic Prime Minister Paul Martin's views on abortion and same-sex marriage are "a source of scandal."
Pope Benedict's congregation also published a document asking Catholic lawmakers to fight a growing movement to legalize same-sex marriage.
Pope Benedict has frequently criticized the growth of Church bureaucracy and its output of studies, reports and meetings. Asked once whether the Vatican would operate better in Germany, he responded, "What a disaster! The Church would be too organized.
"The saints were people of creativity, not bureaucratic functionaries," he added.
He said his personal models are individuals who "listen to their consciences" and place the truth above "the approval of the many."
"It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism," he urged.
In his first decade at the helm of the doctrinal congregation, Pope Benedict zeroed in on liberation theology as the most urgent challenge to the faith. He silenced Latin American theologians and guided the preparation of two Vatican documents that condemned the use of Marxist political concepts in Catholic theology.
But after the collapse of Marxism as a global ideology, Pope Benedict identified a new, central threat to the faith: relativism. He said relativism is an especially difficult problem for the Church because its main ideas - compromise and a rejection of absolute positions - are so deeply imbedded in democratic society.
More and more, he has warned, anything religious is considered "subjective." As a result, he said, the issue of abortion is being confronted with "political correctness" instead of moral judgment.
He said modern theologians are among those engaged in relativistic thinking. He said Jesus is widely seen today as "one religious leader among others," concepts like dogma are viewed as too inflexible and the Church is accused of intransigence.
The new pope also has focused on ordinary Catholics, saying there can be no compromise on dissent by the lay faithful. He helped prepare a papal instruction on the subject in 1998 and accompanied it with his own commentary warning Catholics they would put themselves outside the communion of the Church if they reject its teachings on eight specific issues.
The same year, he issued a document on papal primacy, saying that, as a matter of faith, only the pope has the authority to make changes in his universal ministry.
Despite an apparently bleak outlook, Pope Benedict sees signs of hope.
"It is likely that there lies before us a different epoch in the history of the Church, a new epoch in which Christianity will find itself in the situation of the mustard seed, in tiny groups apparently without influence which nevertheless live intensely bearing witness against evil and bringing good into the world. I see a great movement of this type already underway," he told Seewald.
He admitted that his views on some matters have changed since the 1960s. "Still my deepest purpose, especially during the council, was always to free the true core of the faith from encrustations to restore to it energy and dynamism. This impulse is the true constant in my life."