When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the papacy in April of 2005, taking the name of Benedict XVI, a collective groan of disappointment, shock, and disbelief rose up from Catholic liberals and dissidents around the world. A little more than a year later, some observers have maintained that the Pope we’ve seen is the one they always knew. On the other hand, some conservatives and traditionalists are disappointed that he has not cracked down on liberals as they had expected, and some liberals such as Charles Curran and Andrew Greeley have been encouraged that he has been more gentle and open to dialogue than they were led to expect from his days as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Two dissident scholars who know Benedict very well share this more optimistic view of him.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann was a classmate of Joseph Ratzinger’s when studying theology at the University of Munich. She went on to become the first woman ever to become a professor of Catholic Theology, when she was granted a chair at the University of Essen. She also became the first woman to lose her position and chair as a professor of Catholic Theology when she was excommunicated for denying the Virgin Birth. In this interview, she speaks highly of Pope Benedict and for their mutual respect for one another. She has tremendous respect for his intelligence, and considers him to be humble.
…After I lost my chair and was excommunicated in 1987, Ratzinger was the only one, of all those bishops and cardinals, to write to me in a friendly way, offering support.
I did reconcile myself with John Paul II after he died. But with Ratzinger, I am already reconciled with him in life. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because, like Socrates, the more I know, the less I understand.
Hans Kung, of course, is the famous liberal theologian who was a rising young star at Vatican II along with his colleague and friend Joesph Ratzinger. They taught together at the University of Tubingen, and started to part ways when student radicals appeared at Tubingen, and in a watershed event, invaded Ratzinger’s classroom in 1968. Ratzinger was never the same, and took a markedly conservative turn after that. On the other side, Kung, in his struggles with the CDF, eventually lost his license to teach Catholic theology. He is still a priest.
Recently, the two men who were once friends had an amiable, lengthy meeting and a dinner together, pledging to work together on issues surrounding human rights and world peace. Kung spoke highly of the meeting, and also of the Pope’s first encyclical on love (Kung was not given back his license to teach Catholic theology, nor did he ask Benedict to do so).
I can certainly tell you that my disappointment . . . I had when I heard of the election of my former colleague Joseph Ratzinger . . . that this disappointment did not realise. I must say he made it much better than I expected, and we still can have hope that he will make progress in the church.
I was happy that he spoke about love; and he has done it in a rather constructive way, without [the] negative statements you hear sometimes from Church people.
He may now be in a new situation, you know. When he was the head of the Holy Office, he always had to say, “Well, here are doctrinal deviations; here are some people who are not absolutely Catholic”, and so on. He had always to use censorship, and all the rest. Now he is in a different position: he has to talk to people, he has to face all sorts of people, he needs the sympathy of the people, he has to show a pastoral mind. And, I think he [understands] very well that he cannot show the same face as he had before.
With Leonardo Boff, there has apparently has been no such rapprochment. Boff was a student of Ratzinger’s when he wrote his doctoral thesis in Germany. Later, he went on the become well-known as one of the principal writers on Liberation Theology.
Taking a cue from Vatican II and the Medellin Conference of 1968, which emphasized the “preferential option for the poor”, liberation theologians stressed that the Church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor, and that the Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor. They had a much more horizontal view of the Church than a vertical one, and established “base communities”, in which priests and nuns moved out of their religious houses and lived among the poor, sharing their living conditions. There was a heavy emphasis on social justice, human rights, and the Church being aligned with the working class to bring about social change. Some priests became active in politics and trade unions.
There was a great deal of alarm by the 1980’s in the Vatican over certain aspects of this, especially since many of these theologians used the language of Marxist dialectic, and were committed to socialism. Marxism of any kind or in any guise was never going to fly with Pope JPII or the CDF.
For his part, concerning the structure of the Church, Leonardo Boff wrote in his book, Church, Charism, and Power:
The church recognizes the unfathomable dignity of the human person and so can be the conscience of the world with respect to human rights… But proclamation alone is not enough. The church will only be heard if it gives witness by its practices, if it is the first to respect and promote human rights within its own reality. Otherwise, one would be right to criticize a church that sees the speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in its own.
For this book, Boff landed himself in some trouble with the CDF. He was summoned to Rome to discuss his book and his views. The late Penny Lernoux describes the scene in her 1990 book, People of God. I think it says a lot about the difference between the way Leonardo Boff and Joseph Ratzinger think:
Boff kept up his good humor once inside the small interrogation room - the "room of the knights of the round table," as he called it - saluting Ratzinger with a smart, "Gruss Gott, Herr Kardinal." A cordial Ratzinger told Boff to read his responses to his charges, then questioned him politely about their differences. Afterwards there was a coffee break and banter, and it was then that the knives emerged:
"A cassock suits you very well, Father Boff," said Ratzinger, "and it also offers proof to the world of who you are."
"But it's not easy to wear in Brazil because of the heat," responded Boff.
“But that's how people recognize your devotion and patience, and they will say: He is paying for the sins of this world."
"Of course we need proofs of spiritualism, but they don't come from a cassock but from the heart, and it is the heart that should be well worn."
"But one doesn't see the heart, and something has to be seen, doesn't it?"
"Yes, but it could be that the cassock is a symbol of power. When I wear it on a bus, people feel they have to get up and give me their seats. We should be the servants of the people.""
Despite the apparent cordiality of the meeting, Boff found himself silenced over this matter in 1985, removed from editorial functions, and suspended from his religious duties.
Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was a Professor in Germany, it was he who orientated the doctorial thesis of Leonardo Boff on Christology and he liked it so much, gave it a very high mark and helped him even with money to publish his thesis in German at that time. And then Boff wrote a book based on his thesis that was published here 'Jesus Christ the Liberator' and some time afterwards when the book was being very criticised in Rome, Cardinal Arns spoke to Cardinal Ratzinger and said to him but how is it possible that you gave him such a high mark for his doctorial thesis and now your saying that his book is dangerous and should not be sold to Catholics etc, and Cardinal Ratzinger answered and said 'Well you have to understand when you are a university professor you read thesis one way, when you are responsible for the CDF you read books in another way.'
-- Ana Flora Anderson ( theologian at Sao Paulo's Catholic University)
Boff was obedient, stating that he would “rather walk with the Church than to walk alone”. He obeyed. The decision was repealed in 1986, Boff went back to work, but proceedings against him began again in 1992. This time, Boff left the Franciscan Order and the priesthood. He said:
Ecclesiastical power is cruel and merciless. It forgets nothing. It forgives nothing. It demand everything.
Before the 2005 conclave, Boff was quoted as saying:
Ratzinger is one of the (Catholic) church's most odious cardinals because of his rigidity, and because he humiliated the bishops' conferences and fellow cardinals in an authoritarian manner on questions of faith… (Ratzinger) will never be pope, because it would be excessive, something the intelligence of the cardinals would not permit
After the conclave, he said:
I feel let down because I was expecting someone who would bring hope in the sense of a new chapter in the Catholic Church which would be more open to dialogue.
I really believe that the Church is much more than the pontificate in the Vatican.
The Church is enormous and comes from the dream of Jesus Christ, which extends all over the world.
I personally believe that Cardinal Ratzinger has a profound spirituality, is a man of great virtue, but as well as these virtues, you need to have an ample vision of the world.
Even though he has left the priesthood, Boff is still active with Liberation Theology in Latin America, working with the "Landless Movement" and base communites, as his website suggests. From the look of him I’d say he has sort of a Jerry Garcia thing going on. :-)
He says this about theology:
Theology, as the word suggests, is a discussion about God and all things as seen in the light of God. It constitutes a singularity in our species that, in some moment during millions of years of evolution, the consciousness of God appeared. With this word, “God,” is expressed a supreme value, a final sentiment of the universe and life and an original Source from which all other beings came.
This God inhabits the universe and accompanies human beings. The sacred texts of religions and spiritual traditions testify to the permanent action of God in the world. He always acts in favor of life, defending the weak, offering forgiveness to the fallen and promising eternal life in communion with Him.
It belongs to the faith of Christians to affirm that God approximated Himself to human existence and made Himself man in Jesus of Nazareth. In this the promise of blessed union with Him is anticipated and will be the destination of all the beings of the entire creation.
Among the many functions of theology today two are most urgent: how theology collaborates in the liberation of the oppressed, who are today’s “crucified Christs,” and how theology helps to preserve the memory of God so that we do not lose the sentiment and sacredness of human life which is threatened by a culture of superficiality, consumption and entertainment. We should always unite faith with justice, where a perspective of liberation is born, keeping the flame of our sacred lamp burning so that it can feed the hope for a better future for the Earth and all humanity.
Was the Liberation Theology that seemed to wither away in the early 1990’s a lost opportunity for the Church? I see a remarkable, and in some ways, regrettable difference between the episcopate in Latin America back then and the men there now. As the lack of priests starts to tell, and more and more Latin Americans become convinced that the Church doesn’t care for their concerns, and leave for Pentecostalism, men like Colombia’s Cardinal Castrillon De Hoyos are obsessed with bringing back the Latin Mass. Were the base communities the way to go? Was Boff right, or is he really just rain-forest chic, “Ben & Jerry’s” gone over the top?