- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

VATICAN CITY — Italian newspapers yesterday identified Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the front-runner to succeed Pope John Paul II with the backing of at least 40 cardinals, while critics conducted a ruthless whispering campaign against the conservative German prelate.

La Repubblica’s respected Vatican correspondent Marco Politi reported that at least 40 and perhaps as many as 50 of the 115 voting cardinals were prepared to support Cardinal Ratzinger, 78, the late pope’s personal theologian.

A well-placed Polish Church source said he thought Cardinal Ratzinger’s supporters so far “might be more than 50, perhaps as many as 55.”

La Repubblica said the cardinal was willing to accept nomination in the conclave starting Monday only if he can be sure of the two-thirds majority required to elect a pope during the first 13 days of the conclave, or 77 votes.

If the conclave continues longer than 13 days, a simple majority will elect the next pope, under rules put in place by John Paul.

The newspaper also said that rivals of the “Panzercardinal,” as the French press has dubbed him for his unbending doctrinal stances, were spreading “poison” against him.

“To eliminate him, somebody has spread the word that he belonged to Nazi organizations,” it quoted a friend of the cardinal saying. “Like all German boys, he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth. He recounted it himself in a book; he was little more than a child; he was 12 years old.”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary was unavailable for comment when his office was called yesterday, but John Allen Jr., a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote about the episode in a 2002 biography of the cardinal.

Cardinal Ratzinger “was briefly enrolled in the Hitler Youth in the early 1940s, though he was never a member of the Nazi party,” Mr. Allen wrote.

“In 1943, he was conscripted into an anti-aircraft unit guarding a BMW plant outside Munich. Later, Ratzinger was sent to Austria’s border with Hungary to erect tank traps. After being shipped back to Bavaria, he deserted. When the war ended, he was an American prisoner of war.”

Both La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera newspapers reported that two other powerful German cardinals — Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Vatican-based Walter Kasper — were strongly against Cardinal Ratzinger. Both have disagreed publicly with him in the past.

Spanish cardinals also have voiced concern that at 78, Cardinal Ratzinger may be too old to be acceptable to the Roman Catholic public.

Vatican sources said opponents of Cardinal Ratzinger were supporting temporarily a symbolic candidacy for Carlo Maria Martini, who was their favorite for years until he resigned as Milan archbishop in 2002.

Cardinal Martini, also 78, is in poor health and has indicated that he does not want St. Peter’s throne.

But a strong showing in the first round could indicate the strength of reformist cardinals and help rally support behind a candidate more acceptable to them, Vatican watchers said.

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