As the Pope leaves England some will feel inspired others bruised by his visit. I keep remembering a biography of the then Cardinal Ratzinger written eleven years ago by the Vatican expert John L Allen Jr and published by Continuum. It was five years before Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XV1. This time the press has been consumed by Child Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church
But here is what I wrote then. It feels like a different man came to visit:
In a 1998 poll in Bunte magazine to name the 200 most important Germans, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came in at number 30, well ahead of tennis player Steffi Graf. A prolific author translated into several languages, Ratzinger has enjoyed global celebrity status unparalleled by any cardinal of the Roman curia ever, according to his American biographer John L. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the Kansas-based National Catholic Reporter.
For the past twenty years, Ratzinger has been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which used to be known as the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition and which still has the power to censure a thinker, ban a book or condemn a line of thought. In trying to examine how Ratzinger, once considered a progressive young theologian and liberal at the Second Vatican Council, has ended up as the chief architect of a great wave of repression in Catholic theology, John Allen has dug deep into the archives of Ratzinger’s native Bavaria, where he spent his childhood in the shadow of the Nazis, and does not flinch in his accusation that Ratzinger is guilty of at best, a selective memory, at worst, the sin of omission.
By way of setting the scene, Allen introduces Joseph’s great uncle on his father’s side Georg, one of the towering Bavarian figures of the nineteenth century. While the present cardinal has every right to admire his great uncle whose political and literary works were impressive, he cannot be ignorant of his uncle’s anti-Semitism, Allen argues. “It seems reasonable to expect some comment on views that obviously played their own unintended role in creating the conditions in which the Holocaust was possible.”
In 1939 Ratzinger entered a seminary in Traunstein but when this became a military hospital he returned to his gymnasium until 1943, when he was drafted into the anti-aircraft corps. In a 1993 interview he maintained that he never took part in active combat but admitted that while on duty at the BMW plant he witnessed slave labourers from the Dachau concentration camp.
According to his biographer, the way Ratzinger describes his Traunstein experience today, it sounds as if most of the political chaos and the war was “out there” while he was reading great literature, playing Mozart or joining his family on trips to Salzburg. “The truth, however, is that the horrors of the Reich were right there in Traunstein, staring Ratzinger in the face just outside the door of the gymnasium or across the seminary playing field.”
Traunstein, like many other German towns, was not spared the horrors of Kristallnacht and also had its own prison for ‘political criminals’. Some of its citizens, including people known to Ratzinger and his family, did show resistance to the Nazis and a few paid the ultimate price. Yet although Ratzinger has offered many details from the war years about army service or schooling, it is striking that he leaves out any mention of the upheavals which left the town Judenfrei by 1938.
”In a city of fewer than 12,000 people, even allowing for the chaos and confusion, Ratzinger must have known what was happening. Even if he was not aware of them at the time he certainly knew the history by 1997, when he wrote his memoirs. One gets the impression that the Third Reich has meaning for Ratzinger today primarily as an object lesson about church and culture and only the details consistent with that argument have passed through the filter of his memory…This reading of the war omits what many would consider its main lesson, namely the dangers of blind obedience.”
The biography also examines in unsparing detail where Ratzinger stands today on issues of inter-religious dialogue. He is a fierce opponent of the various movements towards Catholic détente with other religions, not just Judaism. Yet although John Allen states that there is little question about Ratzinger’s personal respect for Jews or opposition to anti-Semitism, the theological position he holds on Judaism - that for Christians, Jewish history and scripture reach fulfillment only in Christ - is deeply offensive to some Jews and has been branded a form of “theological anti-Semitism“ by some scholars.
At a time of widespread disquiet about the recent downturn in dialogue between the Catholic Church and Jewish leaders such views matter. When the Cardinals of the Catholic Church gather before long in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope, they will, Allen argues, in effect be deciding whether or not to continue the uncompromising policies Ratzinger has been the central force in shaping.
This is a brave book to have been written by one whose daily work is still intimately connected with the Vatican