The long-anticipated death of Josef Ratzinger—head of the Catholic Church between 2005 and 2013 as Pope Benedict XVI—has led to a deluge of the kind of vacuous eulogising that accompanies the passing of any leading pillar of the establishment. One can detect in some of the commentary the terms of a debate over Benedict’s legacy that has been underway for some time—particularly over his role in the crisis brought on by revelations of widespread sexual abuse within the Church. Given the deep political polarization in the top echelons of the Catholic hierarchy and the likely prospect of a bruising confrontation over Pope Francis’s successor in the very near future, Benedict’s embrace by an aggressive Catholic Right in recent years means that these controversies are bound to continue.
For now, however, mainstream pundits seem inclined (as they were following the recent death of the British monarch) to forgive Ratzinger’s worldly offenses, and focus instead on an ostensibly benign theological legacy. In many quarters he is credited with “finally facing up to” the problem of sexual abuse. Given the scale of his partisan involvement in the major battles within the Church over many years, this is an excessively generous approach that lends itself to apologetics or, worse, to cover-up. Confronted with soft platitudes and insipid eulogising on one side and a looming clash with a resurgent Catholic Far Right on the other, socialists need a sober and hard-headed appraisal of Benedict’s role.
Youth and Background
Ratzinger was born into a pious, middle-class family in Marktl am Inn, a Bavarian village along Germany’s border with Austria. Much has been made of his membership of the Hitler Youth movement in his teens, but this seems to have been obligatory: his family were moderately hostile to the Nazis, mainly because of the restrictions they imposed on German Catholicism. By the age of 12 he was enrolled in a junior seminary at Traunstein, and after the war entered a Catholic seminary in Freising, later attending university in Munich.
Ratzinger’s early reputation as a liberal within the German Church is well known, as is his support for Vatican II—the internal reforms initiated from Rome beginning in 1962—which called on a Church seen as distant and lifeless to “open the windows…so that we can see out and the people can see in”. Most accounts of his Munich years paint Ratzinger as a progressive who executed an about-face when confronted with the excesses of 1968, and while there is an element of truth here, the reality is that Ratzinger’s early enthusiasm was always conditional.
He took part in the Vatican II sessions at the age of 35 as an academic theologian who had little contact with lay Catholics. While one faction at Rome—the aggiornamento movement—pushed for embracing the modern world and “integrating the joys and hope, the grief and anguish, of humanity into what it means to be Christian”, Ratzinger leaned toward the backward-looking faction grouped around ressourcement—a ‘back to basics’ impulse that pushed for a return to early tradition. Still, his writings at the time “breathe[d] with the spirit of Vatican II,” one critic wrote, “the spirit that Ratzinger…would later denigrate”.
Vatican II represented a compromise between Church liberals and traditionalists—a fudge that makes it possible even to this day for both conservatives and a dwindling core of Church progressives to claim it as its own. Both Francis and his right-wing opponents, for example, declare themselves to be faithful inheritors of Vatican II.
Turning Point in 1968
Even given this ambiguity, there is no doubt that the effect of the social upheavals around 1968 drove Ratzinger toward a fundamental social and theological conservatism, and to a deep hostility against what he saw as the evil influences of secularism and modern life. This bedrock rejection of the sixties legacy has informed virtually every area of Ratzinger’s public role, from his appointment as cardinal of Munich in 1977 to his handling of the sexual abuse scandals in recent years.
In 1966 Ratzinger took up a teaching post at the University of Tubingen, then a “flagship of theological liberalism”. When student protests reached the campus in 1968, Ratzinger reacted with marked hostility, indignant that students would dare to challenge him in class, and shocked that his colleagues didn’t share this resentment. When protesting students disrupted the faculty senate, Ratzinger reportedly walked out rather than engage the students, as other faculty did. Stunned that the radicalisation had made inroads among even among Catholic staff, Ratzinger placed his faith in Protestant theological students to provide a ‘bulwark’ against the left, but even they let him down. Setting himself against the “fanatical ideologies” circulating across the world, he wrote dejectedly (if prematurely), “The Marxist idea has conquered the world”.
Simultaneously, conservatives within the Church scored a major victory in the internal conflict over the implications of Vatican II, when in the same year Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae vitae, reiterating Rome’s traditional ban on artificial contraception. The Church’s unwillingness to shift on the issue of birth control deflated not only many lay Catholics, but even a substantial layer of clergy, who had signalled support for the “rights of individual conscience” and who had assumed, naively perhaps, that the lofty rhetoric of Vatican II would be accompanied by deeds. The abrupt turn to the right was “even more disheartening” for many believers because it “followed a moment of such optimism and new life”.
The ban on contraception has to be seen in the context of a deeply conservative reaction against the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and Ratzinger was at the centre of the panic it induced among Church conservatives. He later recalled being repulsed by a movie billboard showing “two completely naked people in a close embrace”. Rejecting “all-out sexual freedom [which] no longer conceded any norms”, Ratzinger blamed the new permissiveness for a “mental collapse” across society, linking it to a new “propensity for violence” and—curiously—to the outbreak of fistfights during air travel. Eccentricities aside, this signalled the beginning of a major offensive to roll back sexual freedom, and in later iterations would include an obsessive targeting of LGBTQ rights.
John Paul II, The Challenge of Secularism and Liberation Theology
By the late 1970s Ratzinger had rejected even the tepid liberalism of his younger days, and it was this turn that brought him into collaboration with the Polish-born cardinal Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II. At the core of John Paul’s tenure in Rome was a sustained campaign to finish the hollowing out of Vatican II and consolidate conservative control over the global Church. His appointment as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made Ratzinger John Paul’s leading heresy-hunter, earning him a reputation as ‘God’s Rottweiler” for his role in a series of brutal purges—including of his own former close friends from Germany. The “freedom to explore, which Ratzinger had once demanded for theologians,” one biographer writes, “was now being rapidly eroded by his own hand”.
The rise of Liberation Theology in Latin America presented the most formidable challenge facing Rome in the early 1980s. In a desperately poor region where the Catholic hierarchy had consistently aligned itself with corrupt US-supported regional oligarchs—including right-wing military dictatorships reliant on torture—a challenge had begun to emerge in the late 1960s, led initially by grassroots missionaries among Jesuits and the other religious orders, including large numbers of women. By the mid-1970s these had won wide influence among workers and the poor, organized into ‘base communities’ that operated outside the control of the upper levels of the hierarchy.
John Paul’s iconic finger-wagging at the poet-priest and Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal on the airport tarmac at Managua in 1983 gave a clear indication of Rome’s attitude to ascendant left-wing Catholicism in Latin America. The campaign then underway was a comprehensive one, involving high-level collaboration between Rome and the Reagan administration at Washington, and included generous support from the CIA and the targeting of the religious orders for murder and assassination.
The scale of the purge can be seen in Brazil, where under a military regime Liberation Theology had sunk deep roots among a new generation of industrial workers, in the favelas and among the rural poor. There John Paul II replaced progressives with conservative religious leaders in nine of Brazil’s thirty-six archdioceses, a ‘dismantling’ that continued under Benedict’s reign. Rome oversaw a multi-faceted campaign against the Catholic Left, involving an intense centralization, bureaucratic high-handedness and tacit support for military repression. But it was Ratzinger who prosecuted the ideological campaign to recapture the Church for the Right.
Here John Paul’s rottweiler turned his theological training to rooting out the ‘heresy’ of the Liberationists’ “preferential option for the poor”. In 1984 he issued his Instruction on Certain Aspects of Theology of Liberation, which argued predictably that biblical refences to the poor referred to a ‘poverty of the spirit’ rather than material inequality. Wielding a ‘perverted’ concept of the poor and inciting envy of the rich, liberation theology represented in his eyes a “negation of the faith”. Ratzinger countered with a ‘theology of reconciliation’, following the Pope’s admonition that “a more harmonious society” would “require both forgiveness from the poor, for past exploitation, and sacrifice from the rich”.
Ratzinger oversaw the purge of liberation theology’s leading exponents, including Brazilians Leonard Boff and the nun Ivone Gebara, whose work had “linked liberation theology with environmental concerns” and who “defended poor women who had abortions in order not to endanger existing children”. At the same time he drew close to right-wing organizations like Opus Dei and brought the Latin American bishops’ conference [CELAM] directly under Rome’s control. In the face of wide-ranging repression and a comprehensive purge led by Ratzinger, by the early 1990s liberation theology was in full-scale retreat.
Sexual Abuse, Homophobia and Misogyny
With this major confrontation behind him and the ‘liberal voice’ of the Church in retreat all along the line, Ratzinger was well-placed to take over when John Paul II died in 2005. By now a “consummate insider”, and with a curia mostly hand-picked by his predecessor, his ‘election’ as Pope Benedict XVI was in the bag before voting began. The “victories already achieved in the last decades of the 20th century [around] questions of sexual morality, clerical celibacy, the place of women and religious freedom [were] secure,” Peter Stanford writes, and his papacy represented “an extended postscript to the one that had gone before”.
There was one major complication that threatened to disturb Benedict’s rule: the revelation of widespread sexual abuse by clergy across the Church had been continually swept under the carpet by John Paul II—sometimes with Ratzinger’s support. Continuing the trend toward intense centralization, as prefect in 2001 he had ordered all reports of sexual abuse forwarded to Rome, with strict penalties against leaking—including the threat of excommunication. Investigations were to be carried out internally, behind closed doors, and any evidence was to be kept confidential for up to 10 years after victims reached adulthood. His clear priority was damage control for the Church’s reputation. Victims rightly characterized this as a “clear obstruction of justice”.
By the time he assumed the papacy in 2005 avoidance was no longer an option. A major scandal had erupted in 2002 when Cardinal Law of Boston—John Paul’s “favourite son in America”—was revealed to have “secretly shuffled abusers from one parish to another”. Similar revelations emerged in Ireland and Australia. Described by victims as “the poster child for covering up sexual abuse crimes against children”, Law not only avoided reprimand but was promoted to a $145,000 a year post in Rome. Obituaries have drawn attention to Benedict’s willingness to censure Marcial Maciel, the millionaire priest-founder of the powerful Legionnaires of Christ who had fathered multiple children and was accused of widespread abuse of minors. Maciel was untouchable under John Paul II, and Benedict’s mild censure was long overdue.
Media attention made it impossible for Benedict to dodge the issue any longer: clearly it was these pressures, and not any change of heart on his part, that compelled him to take limited action. Even minimal scrutiny, however, shows the same priorities—defence of the Church’s reputation and its finances— were evident in every aspect of Benedict’s response. His own carefully-crafted image as a credible mediator was severely tarnished when it was revealed that Ratzinger himself had been involved in covering up such crimes while a cardinal in Munich, and in 2022 he was compelled to admit to providing false information to an inquiry there.
More significant is the ideological content of Benedict’s attempt to rescue the Church. The problem of sexual abuse and its systematic coverup became, in Benedict’s hands, further confirmation of the depravity brought on by sexual permissiveness and, unsurprisingly, an opportunity to rail against the evils of homosexuality. There was little tolerance for a frank discussion of problems inherent in clerical celibacy, or of the costs of sexual repression more generally. Over and over again Benedict and his closest aides attempted to link the horrific abuse carried out under their watch to a specific inclination toward paedophilia they attributed to “homosexual cliques” and “gay lobbies”. This was the basis for his admission of “how much filth there is in the church [even among] the priesthood”, and it won Benedict the endorsement of the Catholic Right, who were relieved to return to the offensive after so long on the back foot. It was a despicable attempt to deflect the Vatican’s responsibility for crimes carried out under its watch.
The scapegoating of the LGBTQ community was rooted in a more general misogyny underpinning the Catholic Right’s response to even the most moderate demands by female congregants to assume a larger role in Church life. In 2003 Ratzinger had denounced civil partnerships for same-sex couples as “the legislation of evil”, and on the cusp of his papacy in 2004, his Letter on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World defined the role of women in terms of virginity followed by marriage, motherhood and support for the male head of family, citing Genesis 3:16: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Under both popes, the Vatican became obsessed with policing dissent around its teachings on sex, and women have paid an especially high price. In Latin America the hierarchy welcomed a turn away from social and economic justice and toward a fixation with sexual morality and holding the line on abortion. In the US—apparently at the instigation of Cardinal Law—the Church carried out a clampdown on nuns accused of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith”. Hailing from religious orders with experience in Latin America, they were charged with “‘corporate dissent’ on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion” and criticized for supporting socialized health care. Elsewhere a nun was excommunicated for supporting a pregnant woman whose doctors believed she would die if they did not terminate her pregnancy”. Priests were removed from teaching positions for questioning Church teaching on birth control.
Benedict’s Legacy: A Church in Freefall
Underneath the sound and fury, the whole period between the ascendancy of John Paul II and Francis’ papacy is marked more by continuity than rupture. Although the mood music has changed, there is no prospect of a fundamental change of direction, and despite the invective from the Catholic Right, the reality is that Francis has only tinkered at the edges of a deep, possibly existential crisis facing the Church. Ratzinger himself acknowledged that to hold fast to its dogma the Church might have to accept a sharp decline in numbers and influence, and this is clearly the preferred trajectory of the Catholic Right, who have made of Benedict’s orthodoxy “a kind of Tea Party Catholicism”: they wield considerable influence, and seem keen to purge all who dissent from its backward social teaching and its warped take on sexual morality.
They may not have a choice. In the traditional heartlands of Catholicism—notably Ireland and Spain in western Europe, but in urban immigrant neighbourhoods in the US as well—the Church is in freefall, with no signs of recovery. In Latin America, where it once enjoyed a religious monopoly—and across Asia and Africa—Benedict’s war on liberation theology opened the door to grassroots evangelicals and Protestant sects, who are growing by leaps and bounds among the dispossessed in places like Brazil. The deep inadequacy of its response to the sexual abuse scandal has shaken many religious believers and lifted the veil on the endemic sexism and authoritarianism at the heart of the Church, and in the US an especially deranged hierarchy has hitched its fortunes firmly to Trump, Bannon and the brutality of the far Right. Those hungry for the meaningful solidarity and full flowering of humanity that the Church promises—but is incapable of delivering—will have to seek solutions elsewhere.
A version of this essay first appeared on the Irish website Rebel News.