The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI spells the end of the hope that the Catholic Church may become more liberal. Catholic progressives look back longingly on the era initiated by the 1965 Vatican II Council, when the church finally opened itself to the world; Ratzinger rejects Vatican II as "scandalous optimism", propagating "misleading", "disastrous" and "catastrophic" ideas.
Ratzinger is on record as believing that Vatican II was a mistake because the Church entered into a dialogue with society rather than holding itself apart from "a progressive process of decadence".
In interviews, he has fumed about the laity that no longer allowed priests to run their lives, women ignoring their most important functions as virgins and mothers and the widespread failure to believe in the devil.
It was not always like this; there was a time when Ratzinger embraced a more sensitive Christianity. But like some of the US neo-conservatives he went through a mid-life conversion from progressive to arch-conservative.
The son of a Bavarian police officer, Ratzinger grew up under the Nazis and as a teenager was conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. He later said that his Catholicism protected him against the influence of fascism.
After the war he entered a seminary so as to contribute to the "Christian rebirth" of Germany. A brilliant intellectual, he quickly rose through the ranks to become theological advisor to Cologne's Cardinal Frings at the age of 35.
Frings famously received a standing ovation at Vatican II by declaring that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern name for the Inquisition) in its methods and behaviour "do not conform to the modern era and are a source of scandal in the world".
Ratzinger, as Pope John Paul II's enforcer, reinvigorated the Congregation and used it to destroy not only the individual careers of theologians but also entire churches, as occurred in Holland. It is part of the irony of Ratzinger that one of the theologians he oppressed, the Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, was one of his students during Ratzinger's liberal period.
In the 1960s, Ratzinger wrote glowingly of "the prophetic protest against the self-righteousness of the institution, a self-righteousness which substitutes ritual for morality and the ceremonial for conversion....God, throughout history, has not been on the side of the institution but on that of the suffering and persecuted."
His political turnaround came when rebellious students threw German universities into turmoil during the 1960s youth radicalisation. He has said that it was the "psycho-terror" inflicted on him by the students at the University of Tubingen that altered his opinion of Marxism (students had boycotted his classes and mocked his ideas).
A crucial turning point in Ratzinger's career occurred in 1977, when he met Poland's Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II. They shared common feelings about Marxism and the need to restore order to the church after the "excesses" of Vatican II. Upon becoming pope, John Paul appointed Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation where he won the nickname "the Pope's Rottweiler".
Although it no longer uses torture, the Congregation is feared within Catholicism. Over the centuries it has been tainted with excesses and scandal.
As prefect, Ratzinger showed no mercy while exhibiting two unusual characteristics. One was his enormous intellectual capacity. The other was his willingness to give background briefings to the press.
A significant feature of Ratzinger's world outlook, as revealed in these interviews, is his preoccupation with European culture, to the exclusion of all others.
Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger played a soft cop/hard cop game within the Church. John Paul built his media image while using Ratzinger to deflect criticism of himself. As an Italian theologian commented to a journalist of the US National Catholic Reporter: "If Ratzinger didn't exist, the pope would find someone just like him."
A legacy of John Paul II's, which Benedict is expected to build upon, has been the growing power of bizarre semi-secret organisations like Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way within the Church. Catholic laity can look forward to more intrusions from these weird cults into parish life.
Liberal Catholics, in their millions, pine for the days of hope opened by Vatican II. But they need to remember that it was the mass radicalisation sparked by the anti-Vietnam War movement that enabled them to drive back the stodgy cardinals.
If they want to repel this new reactionary wave, progressive Catholics should throw their energies into building another such radicalisation.
From Green Left Weekly, April 27, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.