- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

As a theologian, the new Pope Benedict XVI has proven himself to be a subtle thinker able to see both sides of even the most violent disagreements — but one who in the end consistently came down on the side of obedience to the Church in Rome.

The young Bavarian prelate was considered a progressive reformer at the debates of the Vatican II council in the mid-1960s, but grew increasingly disillusioned by what he saw as a watering down of the faith and a loss of religious influence and direction across the Western world.

“That the expectations weren’t met, that can be documented purely empirically, statistically,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in “Salt of the Earth,” a 1996 book-length interview with a German journalist that is perhaps the most extensive and personal discussion of his thoughts.

“Today, it is above all progressive folk who speak of a ‘winter of the Church,’” he went on. “That we haven’t experienced a new hour of the Church, but that there have been a lot of crashes — alongside of new beginnings, which also exist — no one can contest.”

In the upheavals that followed Vatican II — from student protests of the late 1960s to Latin America’s Marxist-based liberation theology to clashes over sexuality, birth control and the role of women — Cardinal Ratzinger was a consistent, forceful voice for orthodoxy and submission to Rome.

The shift was only magnified by Pope John Paul II’s selection of Cardinal Ratzinger, a close theological ally, as the Vatican’s chief enforcer of doctrinal obedience in 1981.

Father Joseph Komonchak, Hubbard professor of religious studies at Catholic University and an expert on 20th-century Catholic theology, said the tensions in the selection of the new pope were already evident way back at Vatican II.

“There was a coalition of reformers there, including Ratzinger, who were only united by what they didn’t want — a pessimistic, text-based faith that was very formalized,” Father Komonchak said.

“One camp, which included the new pope, hoped for a return to the early biblical church, based on the beauty and truth of the gospels. The other camp favored more of a dialogue with contemporary life and with reason.”

In “Salt of the Earth,” Cardinal Ratzinger said too many Catholics came to believe the reforms of Vatican II “consisted in simply jettisoning ballast, in making it easier for ourselves.”

Post-Vatican reform movements in the Western church, he said, designed to keep the Catholic Church “relevant,” had produced only a “thinning of the faith.”

The attempt to reconcile the Church with modern life resulted in “fanatical ideologies” exploiting the faith for their own ends, he said.

He took a strict line against liberal theologians who challenged the Vatican line, such as the Rev. Charles Curran, who is at Southern Methodist University, and Germany’s Hans Kung, who taught alongside the new pope at Germany’s University of Tubingen in the 1960s.

The new pope also authored several Vatican condemnations of the Marxist-based “liberation theology” of Latin American clerics.

Liberal religious groups expressed fear over what they said was the new pope’s hard-line views on religious orthodoxy. Bernd Goehring, director of the German ecumenical group Kirche von Unten, called the election a “catastrophe.”

“We can expect no reform from him in the coming years,” Mr. Goehring told reporters in Germany. “I think that even more people will turn their back on the Church.”

With the collapse of Marxism in Europe during Pope John Paul II’s papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger turned his attention increasingly to the collapse of faith in the West, condemning the “dictatorship of relativism” in the very last homily delivered to the cardinals gathered in Rome before the voting conclave began.

Jewish and Muslim groups expressed hope yesterday that as pope, Cardinal Ratzinger will carry on the work of his predecessor in reaching out to the world’s other great faiths.

“Cardinal Ratzinger already has shown a profound commitment to advancing Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs.

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