A Question of Fairness

A review of Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, by John Allen

Cardinal Ratzinger is perhaps the most controversial figure in the Church today, a subject awaiting an author. Various articles about him have appeared, but no book, until the recent appearance of that by John L. Allen, Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.1 Is it fair to Ratzinger? As a former student of the Cardinal, I must admit to having some serious misgivings.

This book, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 2000), is a strange mixture, part early biography (ch. 1-3), part chronicle of some major controversies (4-6), part judgment on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s performance as “enforcer of the faith” and his chances at becoming future pope (7-8). Towards the end of the book, Allen (Cardinal Ratzinger by John Allen cover.)describes the Cardinal as “in most ways the best and brightest the Catholic church of his generation has to offer, a musician and man of culture, a genteel intellectual and polyglot, a deep true believer” (p. 313). Yet, Allen adds, he has left in his wake a fractured Church. The “yet” (or its equivalent) well typifies Allen’s account of Ratzinger’s position on various theological and ecclesiastical issues, which is often concise, though lacking any great depth or insight, but in the final analysis is negated by some “fault” or other. In his concluding chapter, he also offers his readers a succinct summary of the main points of what he considers to be of enduring value that remained with him after reading Ratzinger for over a year (pp. 303-6). Anyone skeptical of Allen might first read this to be assured of his good faith. So too, Allen’s accounts of various major controversies, in particular the chapter on liberation theology, are invariably interesting. How accurate they are is another matter, but the author generally tries to be fair and balanced. The crucial question is: to what extent does he succeed?

For Ratzinger, in the final analysis, remains for Allen the bogeyman that frightens most liberals, the main source of division and demoralization in the contemporary Church. He is the power-wielding churchman whose later theological views, in contrast with his earlier “liberal” stance, has had the effect, inter alia, of “legitimizing the concentration of power in the hands of the pope and his immediate advisors in the Roman curia” (p. 309). In other words, despite all his efforts to be fair, and Allen does make considerable efforts in that direction, the Cardinal remains the ogre.

Take, for example, Allen’s account of the liberation theology saga culminating in its effective defeat as a result in large measure of Ratzinger’s theological analysis and, more importantly, it is claimed, his ecclesiastical, political machinations. This account is not without its merits, but one’s confidence in Allen’s historical judgment is placed under severe strain, when he blames the Cardinal for the failure of Latin American Catholicism to create a social order that better reflects gospel values, namely less inequality between rich and poor (cf. p. 173). One could reasonably argue that more might have been accomplished at the political level in Latin America, if liberation theologians had at the outset not been so skeptical of either Catholic social teaching or the political potential of indigenous cultural traditions of piety they later rediscovered, but that is another issue.

Allen claims that Ratzinger’s attitude to other religions is negative, yet he fails to note, for example, that the Patriarch of Constantinople awarded Professor Ratzinger the Golden Cross of Mount Athos for his contribution to a greater understanding between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Later on, as Cardinal, he joined his former students at the Orthodox center near Geneva for a most amicable and fruitful discussion with representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, whose tradition he frequently cites. Allen seems not to know anything about the Cardinal’s role in helping to establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. And not a word is heard of his defense of Islam from the blanket charge of fundamentalism (cf. A Turning Point for Europe?, p.165-70) or his appreciation of the significance of primordial religious rituals and myths, as found, e.g. in the Hindu tradition (cf. ITQ 65/2, 2000, 257).

But it is above all in Allen’s attempt to write a life of Cardinal Ratzinger (ch. 1-3), that the distorting effect of what seems to be the liberal’s underlying fear of the bogeyman can be seen. The main tendency in these opening chapters, it would appear, is to find an explanation for the transmutation into the “enforcer of the faith” of the earlier “liberal” Ratzinger, the young and promising theologian, who as peritus to Cardinal Frings, played such an important role at the Second Vatican Council.

Joseph Ratzinger grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany within a family that was decidedly anti-Nazi and a Church that was hostile to Hitler — though perhaps not as publicly defiant as a later generation, that did not live in those circumstances, might claim that it should have been. That experience undoubtedly had an influence on Ratzinger, as he himself expressly said. But the claim that “Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesial totalitarianism” (p. 3), however appealing as a sound bite, does not stand up to scrutiny. It is, however, the leitmotif of the whole book. According to Cardinal Ratzinger himself, on the contrary, the best antidote to totalitarianism is the upright conscience typically associated with the poor and the weak (cf. Church, Ecumenism and Politics, p. 165-80). And the role of the Church, he once affirmed, is primarily educational — understood in the spirit of the Greek philosophers who sought” . . . to break open the prison of positivism and awaken man’s receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience . . . ” (A Turning Point for Europe?, p. 55). Though of central importance to Cardinal Ratzinger, both as a man and as a theologian, the primacy of conscience is not even mentioned by Allen.

More serious are insinuations about the supposed failure of Ratzinger’s own family to show more overt opposition to Nazi terror. Such a judgment shows little understanding of what living in a reign of terror involves, especially for a policeman and his young family (one is reminded of the film Life is Beautiful). Failing to note the fleeting and sketchy nature of such recollections, and unaware of other autobiographical references to that time (cf., e.g., Dolentium Hominum, no. 34,1997, p. 17), Allen claims that Ratzinger tends to be selective in his own memory of those times. To prove that Ratzinger’s positive appraisal of the role of the Catholic Church at the time was “one-sided and even distorted in its emphasis on the moral courage of the church, at the expense of an honest reckoning with its failures” (p. 30), Allen claims that “Hitler came to power on the back of Catholic support” (p. 27). This is a serious misinterpretation of events. Allen gives no source for this or similar doubtful interpretations of events. (Indeed, his failure to give his sources is a major weakness of the book.) It would seem that here Allen is following some very biased reading of the historical events. But the reader is left with the vague, overall impression that Cardinal Ratzinger must be hiding something, or at least temporarily repressed it. And so, a shadow is cast over his youth in preparation for the emergence of the full-blown ogre in later life.

It is a cliche in popular theological circles to distinguish between the early and the late Ratzinger. He himself maintains that there is a basic continuity in his theology, a continuity that is not inconsistent with significant changes in perspective, even at times contradicting isolated claims he made in his theological youth. He has acknowledged, for example, a significant development in his eschatology. After all, “[T]o live is to change . . . ” Is it too much to suggest that the changes in his thinking might best be interpreted as signs of maturity, of further reflection due to changing circumstances and broader experience, especially as Prefect of the Congregation? His youthful enthusiasm for collegiality, for example, led to a reappraisal of the institution of national Episcopal Conferences in the light of his own personal experience in such conferences and as a result of his further theological reflection. He also noted the failure of the German bishops during the Nazi period to act more decisively and effectively because of collective responsibility.

Instead, Allen attributes a radical change from “erstwhile liberal” to the conservative “enforcer of the faith” to four causes: the 1968 student unrest, perceptions of decline in church attendance and vocations, too much exposure to Catholic faith at its most distorted, and, finally, power. The student unrest in the late ’60s did have a profound effect on anyone who lived through that turbulent period, and he himself has on occasion referred to this, though it seems to me that his reflections on this period make use of ideas he had already formed in his earlier writings. It is doubtful if the decline in church numbers could have had such a radical effect on him. At a discussion of precisely this topic during a meeting of his former students, he once remarked that the sin for which David was most severely punished by the Lord was not his adultery or the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, but the census, the king’s attempt to number the people of God. Thirdly, his exposure as Prefect to the “pathology of the faith,” as Allen calls it, is more than offset by his own wide reading in the Fathers, contemporary theology, and philosophy, not to mention literature. His scholarly disposition to read and research finds due expression in various scholarly and general publications, the most recent being The Spirit of the Liturgy earlier last year (also not mentioned by Allen). And so one is left with the final “cause”: power. To suggest that the lust for power played a central role in any supposed “change of heart” that Professor Ratzinger revised his theology to advance his career, is (to put it mildly) mistaken, since his theological shift was manifest long before he went to Rome.

It should be mentioned that Ratzinger was never a student of Rahner, as Allen, quoting Wiltgen, claims. Nor was his move to Regensburg made in order to separate himself “intellectually from hitherto close colleagues like Kung and even his old ally, Rahner,” as Adrian Hastings in a review of this book claims. Rahner at the time was at Munster, not Tubingen. The main reason for Ratzinger’s decision to leave such a prestigious university was to escape the turmoil among students and on the faculty in Tubingen, and thus be able to devote himself completely to scholarship in his native Bavaria. This was told to me by Professor Kevin McNamara, Maynooth, in 1970 — information that led to my going to Regensburg for postgraduate studies instead of Tubingen. Later, some of Ratzinger’s doctoral students and assistants at Tubingen confirmed this. (He also had personal, more familial reasons.) Incidentally, Rahner was invited by Ratzinger to be a guest speaker at one of the end-of-semester doctoral colloquia in Regensburg. To the best of my knowledge, their theological differences (which were profound) predate Ratzinger’s appointment to Tubingen. Such differences did not dull his respect for Rahner.

His so-called “change of heart” in theology, it is claimed, is reflected in the two Schulerkreise (not Studentenkreise, the term Allen uses) he is supposed to have built up: those from his years in Bonn, Munster, and Tubingen and those from his years in Regensburg, “the latter group theologically at odds with the former” (p. 104). This division “underlines the gap between Ratzinger before and after the Council.” I am mentioned as an example of the latter group. Allen seems to have conducted fairly extensive interviews with two students of the “earlier Ratzinger,” but only spoke briefly on the phone to one of the “later Ratzinger”, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. Considering the number of postgraduate students who studied under Ratzinger (somewhere between 40 and 50), this is slim evidence on which to base such a far-reaching thesis. It is a pity that the author did not consult the comprehensive report on the doctoral colloquium and the later Schulerkreis by his former Assistant, Professor Stephan O. Horn, SDS (cf. Alla scuola della Verita, Milan, 1997, pp. 9-26). Allen is wrong on several details, such as describing me as a spokesman for the Archbishop of Dublin (untrue) and citing extracts from my writings, especially that from my thesis, without any regard for the context. And he erroneously makes Cardinal Schonborn a student of Ratzinger’s, devoting several pages to the present Archbishop of Vienna to illustrate the “later Ratzinger” (While a visiting scholar in Regensburg, Schonborn joined our colloquium for two semesters, as did other visitors. It was only after Ratzinger’s elevation as Archbishop of Munich, that Professor Schonborn became one of a number of regular guests at the annual meetings of the Schulerkreis.

It is, further, misleading to say that Ratzinger “built-up” two distinct circles of students. There was never more than one, though its composition evidently changed with its members. Indeed, some of his students from his time in Bonn, Munster, and Tubingen might well be considered to number among his more “conservative” students, while others who started their studies while he was in Regensburg are held to be among his more “liberal” students. However, it is true to say that his critical views on postconciliar developments tended in time to attract students more sympathetic to such views. More significant is the fact that all students, irrespective of their basic standpoint, felt at home in the colloquium. This is because of Ratzinger’s evident respect for each member, his quite remarkable ability to promote dialogue and discussion, and his tolerance of diverse viewpoints. I have never encountered anyone who could engender such a free and frank discussion as Professor Ratzinger could. And he gave his students total academic freedom in the choice and treatment of their topic.

It is therefore simply untrue to claim that it was at Regensburg “that Ratzinger began educating a generation of students who would go on to play a leading restoration role in their own national churches” (p. 92). He never set out to indoctrinate any group of students, as seems to be implied here. The seminars and colloquium in Regensburg were places of intense debate and disagreement — and, it should be added, of wit and humor. It was also a time of intensive ecumenical activities for Ratzinger, including his pioneering lecture on the future of ecumenism at the University of Graz in 1976, his support for the various Regensburg Ecumenical Symposia, and the end-of-the-year doctoral colloquia with the Lutheran theologians Pannenberg and Joest, none of which Allen mentions. What Professor Ratzinger taught us at Regensburg, primarily by his example, was to search for the truth with scholarly rigor, to be objective and respectful in debate, to risk unpopularity, and to give reasons for one’s convictions. I even heard the reproach that he had failed to form his own distinct “school,” so diverse were his students and so open was the atmosphere he cultivated. In this, he has not changed with the years, as evidenced by the yearly meeting with his former students.

This characteristic of openness and dialogue is perhaps the key to understanding Ratzinger then as now: it is expressive of his concern for truth, which, he is convinced, will always prevail in the end (cf. p. 286), and explains both the primacy of conscience and the complementary role of the Church in his writings. This in turn involves the greatest possible objectivity, the continual (personal and collective) search for what is in fact true, and so openness to the opinions of others, and the courage to speak the truth in love. As a result, Ratzinger manages to preserve a certain distance from all the controversies that embroil him and his office. Contrary to what is claimed in this book he is ready to listen, is in fact a consummate listener, who once said that “All errors contain truths” (A Turning Point for Europe?, p. 108).

Consistent with this thinking is the statement in the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian that a judgment of the Church on theological writings “does not concern the person of the theologian but the intellectual positions which he has publicly espoused” (my emphasis). For this reason it is strange for Allen to claim that when “Ratzinger denounces a theologian, he also implicitly rejects his theology” (p. 242). On the contrary, he, as Prefect, disciplines theologians because of their theology, not the other way around, and can only do so if they are recalcitrant in their refusal to accept the authoritative judgment of the Church, unpleasant though that may be. For Allen to underline the personal charm of Charles Curran, whom “virtually no one who knows him could construe as an enemy of the faith” (p. 258) is to miss the point completely.

Equally misleading is the claim by Curran (and others) that the methods of the congregation are “a violation of the most basic notions of due process” (p. 271). Such a comparison is invidious. The process used in determining the objective orthodoxy of a theologian must of its nature be different from the process used in a court of law, which judges the subjective guilt of the criminal. Likewise, the various penalties he has imposed on theologians disciplined by the Congregation are, no doubt, very much out of tune with the temper of the times, though to compare them — as has been done — with the penalties meted out to dissidents by totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century is grotesque, and deeply offensive to the dissidents. Those penalties are of course regrettable but, sadly, unavoidable. They do, however, underline the significance the Church accords to theology. Ratzinger is simply fulfilling his responsibility as Prefect of the Congregation with which he has been entrusted, scrupulously adhering to the approved procedures. Theology reflects on the revelation of ultimate human truth as handed on by the Catholic Church. It is concerned with our spiritual health, and is not a value-free academic discipline. In that regard, of course, it is in the same boat as any other serious human endeavor such as, for instance, medicine or law. If someone wishes to practice alternative medicine, he or she is free to do so, but outside the canons of traditional medicine. Mutatis mutandis, that is what is at stake in Ratzinger’s disciplining of certain theologians in recent years.

In passing judgment on the “enforcer of the faith” — itself a loaded term — Allen fails to appreciate the extent to which the Cardinal Prefect has in fact made the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith conform in the letter and spirit to the reform inaugurated by Pope Paul VI. This was symbolized most recently, when he opened the archives of the Congregation to scholarly research (not mentioned by Allen). It is also evident in the way he takes considerable pains to give the reasons for each decision taken by the Congregation. Few of his predecessors have provided anything like the close argumentation to be found in documents such as Donum Vitae or the two Instructions on Liberation Theology.

Though on two occasions Allen quotes from papers read by Ratzinger to meetings held between officers of his Congregation and presidents of episcopal doctrinal commissions on various continents, he misses the real import of such meetings. They were attempts to enter into dialogue with the Asian, African, and American Churches, to bring the center to the periphery, as it were, to listen, to promote debate. That Ratzinger did listen was clear to us, when at the annual meeting of his Schulerkreis, he spoke informally about various events of the previous year involving his Congregation. While in Zaire, he evidently appreciated the adaptation of the Mass to African culture, including the incorporation of ritual dance in that liturgy. He was impressed with the caliber of the Asian theologians he experienced at first hand in Hong Kong.

Apart from the seminars on papal primacy, Allen seems unaware of various other seminars organized by the Congregation under his direction to listen to and learn from experts from around the world on controversial questions, for example, in moral theology and bioethics. Neither is there any mention of the publication by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (under his direction) of the important document on biblical interpretation. In addition, Cardinal Ratzinger has continued to lecture and publish in his own name as a theologian, inviting criticism. The bibliography of his publications (including secondary literature) up to 1997 covers some 101 pages. And he continues to publish. Last year alone, for example, saw the publication of two major books, one an extended interview with a German journalist. That he listens and responds to serious objections is illustrated by his readiness to enter into public debate, as in his extensive interview (covering two full pages) with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (22 September 2000) on hostile reactions to Dominus Iesus.

Finally, far from trying to centralize power in Rome, he has been heard to complain that, because the local bishops fail to act (or feel powerless to act when faced with a theologian who has built up his own international network), his Congregation is often reluctantly drawn into the controversy. Allen’s account of the case of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya would have been more credible, if Allen had taken the trouble to investigate the way this particular case ended up in Rome.

Allen describes a book quoted by Ratzinger (in a discussion of the pluralist theology of religions) as having a reputation for being “tendentious and error-prone, down to small details such as citing the wrong page” (p. 240, again no source is given for this serious accusation). This is really the kettle calling the pot black. As I have briefly described, Allen’s book is error-prone, down to small details of German spelling. It is certainly tendentious, illustrated not only by its subtitle but above all by the uncritical way he quotes accusations made by hostile witnesses, such as Hans Kung, without ever questioning their objectivity or veracity. And, apart from those gaps already mentioned, there are other serious lacunae.

There is, for example, no appreciation of Ratzinger’s writings in areas such as spirituality, politics, and ethics. Many of his sermons, meditations, and retreat talks have been published, even in English, but his rich spirituality does not merit Allen’s attention. Neither is there any treatment of his substantial body of writings on politics and ethics. International recognition of his unique contribution to the field of politics and ethics came when he was appointed a “membre associe etranger” at the “Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques” of the “Institut de France” on 7 November 1992 in Paris, taking the seat vacated by the death of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. One searches in vain for any reference to this significant fact in Allen’s book.

Allen is neither a theologian nor a historian. And yet, despite its drawbacks, his book gives the reader who otherwise might not even glance at any of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings a little taste of their richness. He conveys something of the importance of this largely underestimated theologian holding one of the central offices in the Church at this tempestuous yet exhilarating time in history. But the price to be paid is a rather black and white approach to a man who is far more subtle, charming, and courageous than the man portrayed here. The book is unable to convey the richness and diversity of Ratzinger’s theology, which is not “derivative,” as some anonymous theologian quoted by Allen claims, but highly original and seminal, covering a vast range of subjects with refreshing clarity, insight, and, yes, optimism. Hopefully, its publication may prompt others to study his original writings, to judge for themselves — and so to enter into dialogue with one of the truly great contemporary thinkers.

  1. Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, by John L. Allen, Jr. (New York/London: Continuum, 2000).
Rev. Vincent Twomey, SVD About Rev. Vincent Twomey, SVD

Reverend Vincent Twomey, SVD, was ordained in 1970. He completed his doctorate at the University of Regensburg, Germany (1971-78) under the supervision of the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger. He taught theology first at the Regional Seminary of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands then at the SVD Faculty at Modling, Austria, and is at present Lecturer on the Faculty of Theology, Pontifical University, Maynooth, Ireland.