When Joseph Ratzinger, the man who will be Pope Benedict XVI, is described as conservative, we should remind ourselves of what he would be conservative in relation to. The Pope is the supreme leader of an ancient and powerful hierarchy dedicated to the strict enforcement of a two-millennia-old religious dogma. In this case conservative means conservative relative to what are in any case the most rigid and unyielding of standards. Given that the Pope is the spiritual leader of a sixth of humanity, its worth looking closely at what that means in practise.
From 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ; formerly known as the Inquisition . Gaining the nickname “God’s Rottweiler”, his injunctions included pronouncements that homosexuality is evil, that other religions and versions of Christianity are defective, and that women should not be allowed to sing in choirs or serve at the altar. He also barred Catholic priests from counselling pregnant teenagers on their options.
Under Ratzinger’s enforcement of doctrine the Vatican continued to forbid the use of condoms, even for health , and went so far as to claim they do not prevent the spread of Aids. This in spite of the fact that between 1981 and the end of 2003 Aids killed 20 million people , and that during 2004 around five million adults and children became infected with HIV.
Ratzinger’s doctrines leave little room for attempts to improve the lot of humanity, at least not in this world. As he once lamented , “Greenpeace and Amnesty International seem to have taken over mankind’s concerns, which formerly would have radiated from the impulses of Raphael, Michelangelo or Bach”. In Ratzinger’s moral calculus, efforts to alleviate the suffering of the most unfortunate among us rank some way below contemplation of divinity and adherence to papal dogma. This is most clearly demonstrated by his ruthless crusade against Liberation Theology in Latin America.
In the 1980′s Ratzinger sought to ostracize the mass movement of “Liberation Theology” which was calling for major social reforms in favour of the poor. The movement’s leading figures were condemned and ordered to remain silent. Even before Ratzinger’s appointment in 1981 the suppression was underway. When Archbishop Oscar Romero denounced the gut-wrenchingly brutal dictatorship of El Salvador , he was reprimanded for not being sufficiently balanced in his criticisms of the regime, which the then Pope referred to as the legitimate government . Continuation under Ratzinger was seamless. In 1984, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was reprimanded for his efforts to speak out against the military dictatorship in his country, banned from preaching and from celebrating the sacraments. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the archbishop of SÃ£o Paulo who had supported Boff, had his diocese drastically reduced in size and conservative bishops were brought in by the Pope.
For Ratzinger, the attempts of liberation theology to alleviate poverty in this life served as a distraction from the higher goal of seeking spiritual redemption beyond the material world. From the opulent comfort of the Vatican, Ratzinger opined that “It is the poor, the object of God’s special love, who understand best ….that the most radical liberation, which is liberation from sin and death, is the liberation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ”. Therefore, to listen to the poor meant accepting traditional piety. Instead of “serving as the voice for the voiceless,” the liberationists were seeking to misdirect popular piety toward an earthly plan of liberation. According to Ratzinger, this would lead to another form of slavery, and was a “criminal” act.
In other words, liberationists were enslaving the poor to their material needs; the need to escape from desperate poverty, malnourishment, rampaging infant mortality, illiteracy and so forth. Were it not for these irresponsible dissident priests, filling their heads with ideas, the poor would revel in their earthly piety and concentrate on seeking salvation in the next life. Driven by this repulsive moral-absenteeism, Ratzinger moved to eradicate liberation theology more or less single-handedly, and by silencing its advocates, actively worked to destroy the hopes of the world’s poor. In this life, that is.
Was this what the Archbishop of Canterbury was referring to when he described Ratzinger as “a theologian of great stature who has written some profound reflections on the nature of God and the Church”?
Ratzinger’s rise to the Papacy is ominous indeed. But, when comparing him to his predecessor one should reflect that all of the abovementioned exploits occurred under the gaze of Pope John Paul II. When considering alternative paths the church might have taken one should reflect that, to a greater or lesser extent, religious dogma will always attempt to subordinate rationality. Those who believe that a reasoned enquiry into the workings of the world around us offers humanity’s best hope of happiness and fulfilment should reflect on Ratzinger’s warped and scornful view of that secular humanism : “Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires”. We can be sure that Pope Benedict XVI will spend his reign working tirelessly to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from their own corrupting desires.