Even before I arrived in Rome in 2005 to cover the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the Eternal City was rife with talk on who would succeed him. If one would make a trope of the Colosseum and revive its fortunes but only in the imagination, it could stand for a betting arena, with a mob of bettors thumbing up a gladiator papabile. Or thumbing him down.
Thumbs up for these papabiles: Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state; former Milan Archbishop Carlo Maria Martini, SJ; his successor in Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi; Venus Patriarch Angelo Scola; Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar-general of the Diocese of Rome (whose bishop is the pope); Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schonborn, OP; Lisbon Archbishop Jose da Cruz Policarpo; Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy; Quebec Archbishop Marc Ouellet, a Sulpician; Honduras Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, SDB; Rio de Janeiro Archbishop Oscar Hummes, OFM; Santiago, Chile, Archbishop Francisco Javier Errazuriz; Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ; and Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze.
And thumbs down for … German Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger.
This may be a hyperbole, however, because Ratzinger was not a contender and he hardly figured in many a Vatican watcher’s list of papabiles. There was no need to thumb him down because any prospect of him becoming pope was nil, nonexistent.
But against frenzied media predictions and betting, Ratzinger proved everyone wrong—while again proving true the tired adage “He who enters the conclave as pope leaves it as a cardinal.”
(Depending on who you were talking to, the runner-up was either of the two Jesuit cardinal-electors. In my notes, it was Martini, who led the “progressive” cardinals; but it is likely that after Martini’s name appeared on the first balloting of the first day, he signalled his unwillingness to be considered because he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, so the progressives turned to his fellow Jesuit, Bergoglio. More conclave gossip: A journalist wrote that before passing away in 2012, Martini had told him of his dislike of his Italian-Argentinian confrere.)
The cardinal on whom no one wagered became “Benedict XVI,” after the father of western monasticism, also often called “the spiritual founder of Europe.”
Ratzinger’s papal prospects were discounted by the press even if he was a Vatican insider—no less than the head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
As the longest serving of the suburbican sees, he was also the dean of the College of Cardinals and organized the activities of the cardinal-electors leading to the conclave. He even administered the oath of secrecy on each elector.
The wide public impression that Ratzinger was not a contender was partly caused by the mainstream press’ depiction of him as the “Grand Inquisitor,” “Panzer Cardinal,” and “God’s Rottweiler,” the attack dog of the Vatican against dissenting theologians, clerics and religious.
When Pope John Paul II appointed him head of the CDF in 1981, he started summoning Rome theologians who had expressed allegedly dissenting theological views. They included his old Tubingen colleague Hans Kung, his Vatican II colleague the Belgian Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx, the American Jesuits Charles Curran and Roger Haight, the Peruvian Dominican Gustavo Gutierrez (the “father of liberation theology”), and the Brazilian Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan.
Some of these theologians were sanctioned after inquiry by the CDF, such as Kung, who was forbidden to teach Catholic theology for questioning papal infallibility; Curran, who was declared ineligible to teach at the Catholic University of America for his views on sex and contraception; Haight, who was also forbidden to teach Catholic theology because of his alleged less-than-Christocentric views; and Boff, who left the religious life and eventually the priesthood after he was silenced by the CDF for his political theology.
Ratzinger’s clashes with liberal theologians made him a villain to the secular press whose reportage would almost always focus on controversial topics like sex mores, contraception, and abortion, and on politically contentious issues.
He did not mind the negative portrayal, at one time dismissing media reports about “fundamentalism and Roman centralism” as predictable and boring.
So when the press and Church circles were speculating on who would—or should—become the next pope, he was at the bottom, if not totally out, of the bettors’ lists.
The media even interviewed Kung, who flatly said that Ratzinger should not become pope.
When Ratzinger was elected on the second ballot of the second day of the conclave, Kung called his election “an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope.”
The disappointment was echoed by many in the press, which cited statements by liberal circles against the new pope.
“Ratzinger is not the pope that we would ideally like,” Joelle Battestini, associate convener of the Australian group Ordination of Catholic Women, told Al Jazeera.
Although not a favorite of the liberal press for his conservative views, Ratzinger had always been acknowledged by it as very genial, humble, cordial, and self-effacing, opposite the sinister inquisitorial image fostered by media reports of him.
He also had media-savvy ways, befriending journalists to whom he would grant interviews in order to let his views be known to the world, or to correct negative or distorted reports about the documents of the CDF and the Church as a whole.
One of these journalists was the German Peter Seewald, a lapsed Catholic whose extensive interviews of Ratzinger as CDF head became the bases of the best-selling book, “Salt of the Earth.” When Ratzinger became pope, Seewald did another book of interviews with him, the best-selling “Light of the World.”
Because of his meetings with Ratzinger, Seewald re-entered the Church.
A peritus (or theological adviser) of Vatican II, Ratzinger distanced himself from the progressive stance he took during the council that sought to undertake an “aggiornamento” (or bringing up to date the teachings of the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church). This change of heart seems to have happened after he witnessed the Marxist-inspired student riots in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in 1968. In fact, in one class a student grabbed the microphone from Ratzinger to denounce the establishment.
Ratzinger left Tubingen and transferred to Regensburg. In later years, he denied that his view of Vatican II had changed, insisting that he had always defended the council.
In 2000 the CDF issued the controversial document, “Dominus Iesus,” which proclaims, much to the consternation of non-Catholic Christians, that the Church that Jesus Christ founded “subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” Corollarily, it adds that while Protestant churches have not been “deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation,” they “suffer from defects.”
When questioned about the document, Ratzinger’s defense reflected his fear of the loss of Christocentrism because of modernity, social change, and deepening relativism.
Ratzinger said that since in 2000 the Church was marking the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus Christ, it was only proper that at the heart of “Dominus Iesus” is “a solemn acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord.”
“We insult no one,” he said, “when we assert that the actual members of the Protestant Church are not a Church in the same sense as the Catholic Church wishes to be; after all, they don´t want it themselves.” He added that the document was not a pronouncement on ecclesiology, and that “truth always causes discomfort and is never accommodating.”
He said that “Dominus Iesus” upheld Vatican II. He explained, however, that “the classical doctrinal language which was used in our document to keep it in line with the (doctrinal) texts of Vatican II is totally different from the language of newspapers and the other media of social communication.”
When he was elected, Ratzinger became the first dean of the College of Cardinals to become pope in more than 450 years, after the Theatine Gian Pietro Carafa who became Pope Paul IV in 1555.
When he resigned in 2013, Benedict XVI made history again when he became the first pope in more than 700 years to renounce the petrine ministry since Pope Celestine V in 1296.
And when he died on Dec. 31, 2022, the feast day of Pope Sylvester I, who was pope when the first ever ecumenical council of the Church in history was held in Nicea, Pope Benedict XVI again made history: At 95, he was the oldest pope to give up the spirit.
The author, a journalist since 1986, has covered historic Vatican events, including the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, which elected Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respectively. —Ed.