Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger; drawing by David Levine


Joseph Bernardin was the most important figure in the Catholic Church hierarchy of America during the period after Vatican Council II. The calm center of harsh controversy, he was much beloved. After his death as the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago in 1996, crowds lined up for weeks to pay honor at his burial site. He was admired by Americans generally, not just by his fellow Catholics. Many sympathized with him when he was falsely accused of sexual molestation, and the dignity with which he faced the cancer that killed him moved even people who had never met him. His stature, and his important role in Church developments, make it seem entirely appropriate that his Selected Works should be issued in a handsome set of two thick volumes—over 1,300 pages of sermons, official statements, and public lectures. But all these words, coming from a man who caused so much excitement, are disappointingly dull. It is a quality he deliberately cultivated.

Take, for instance, one of his most famous statements—that Catholic opposition to abortion should be part of a “seamless garment” in support of life, a support including opposition to capital punishment, to euthanasia, and to callous disregard for the poor. The arguments for this position are rehearsed in both volumes of this set, but one searches in vain for the phrase itself (“seamless garment”) that so caught the public attention. He never used it in a written statement, but voiced it when answering questions after a talk he gave at Fordham in 1983. The talk is included in Volume Two of the Selected Works, but not the question and answer session.

Since the phrase called up opposition from conservative Catholics—who said it was “demoting abortion,” which is murder, to put it on a level with failure to do social work among the poor—he dropped it from all later spoken or written comments on the matter. He stuck to a cautious literalism—“a consistent ethic of life.” His position henceforth would be that the “right to life and quality of life complement each other” rather than make up a single “garment.” He covers his flank:

Surely we can all agree that the taking of human life in abortion is not the same as failing to protect human dignity against hunger. But having made that distinction, let us not fail to make the point that both are moral issues….

His long-range aim was to gain the protective cover of making his con-sistent ethic the official position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops—and in this he succeeded. Catholic opposition to abortion was clothed in liberal rhetoric. This did not make many “pro-lifers” less fond of the death penalty or more compassionate toward welfare recipients; nor did it make the “pro-choice” faction less opposed to abortion. But it muted the rhetoric, making the Church sound less fanatical on the subject.

That kind of half-victory was what Bernardin labored for on issue after issue. He was a great “both-and” man. Liberation theologians, he said, should both explore the mystery of faith and obey the teaching authority of the Church. Liturgical reform was both a good thing and in need of official correction. Nuclear war called for new ethical insights and traditional just-war doctrine. With small and carefully placed steps he inched out a path through the minefields of bitter Catholic disagreement. A small gain here could be used as leverage for new gains elsewhere. When he chaired the bishops’ committee that drafted a pastoral letter on war, he disarmed some of the conservative opposition to this “liberal” document by saying that the bishops were almost compelled to consider war because they were committed to protecting human life at the unborn stage.

Only a man as patient as Bernardin could have steered the 1984 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response to a relatively successful completion. Three forces threatened the document at every stage. The Reagan administration dispatched its Catholic national security adviser, William Clark, to head off criticism of the American production of nuclear weapons (Reagan had called proponents of a nuclear freeze the unwitting allies of the Kremlin).1 Conservative bishops felt that Catholic patriotism would be questioned if American policy was not endorsed by the document. And the Vatican suspected that Bernardin was watering down just-war principles. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful Vatican official in charge of doctrinal matters, chaired a Roman meeting to intervene in the American bishops’ drafting process, commissioning a report by Father Jan Schotte when it was felt that Bernardin had misrepresented the drafting process and “confused the different levels of teaching authority in the Church.”2 Fending off these attacks from several directions, Bernardin had to yield on some points—e.g., calling for a “curb” on rather than a “halt” to nuclear tests and production—but the result was important enough to win him the Albert Einstein Peace Award in 1983.


If Bernardin set off alarm bells among conservatives, he could also be criticized from the left. As a member of the Pro-Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he met with the candidates in the 1976 presidential race, saying after his session with Jimmy Carter that he was “disappointed” but that he was “encouraged” by his talk with Ger-ald Ford—which some took as an endorsement of the Republican candidate on the single issue of abortion. Bernardin’s admiring biographer, Eugene Kennedy, says that the press unfairly singled out those two words from his comments. But Bernardin knew that he had been impolitic, and the experience helped make him even more guarded.

A priest familiar with Bernardin’s writing habits tells me that, though he had assistants do preliminary drafts of his statements, he removed any attention-compelling phrases, even on noncontroversial matters, shying away from anything that might sound too original or dramatic. In fact, he destroyed early drafts, including those with his own corrections, and put in his archives only the reworked final text, to leave no paper trail of anything that might sound the least bit indiscreet. Even when he was taking a stand that was courageous, he managed to make it sound as if he were in hiding or only half-awake. As he told my friend who worked with him, “I feel as if Rome hears everything I say.”

The circumstances of his exposed position, as mediator between a conservative Curia in Rome and a restive Church in America, made him adopt a strategy that came naturally to him anyway. Kennedy quotes Father Joseph Goetz:

Spontaneous and unrehearsed were never the words that came to mind about the Archbishop. So carefully prepared was the Archbishop for every occasion that, if he were asked to say grace at a banquet, he would probably read it from a file card so that nobody could misinterpret him.

When he was accused of conspiring with Father Andrew Greeley to remove his predecessor in Chicago, Cardinal Cody, another priest remarked: “The idea of Bernardin’s conspiring was ridiculous. He couldn’t be part of a conspiracy because he would first have consulted with ten other people.”

Thus all drama has been drained from the writings so handsomely presented here. One will not find his greatness in his public comments. Much of what he accomplished was done in secret or anonymously. When John Paul II visited America in 1987, three bishops were given a private session in which to persuade the Pope that American Catholics were not a rebellious crew. Apparently, Ber-nardin’s presentation was very effective, but it was delivered in a confidential session. To see what was important in his career, we must often guess at the explosive situations his words were meant to defuse.

His tact and caution often made him the only go-between available for mending fences. When Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., demanded a loyalty oath on contraception as a condition for ordination in his diocese, Rome appointed Bernardin to negotiate with the nineteen candidates for the priesthood who refused to meet this condition. Since he was ordered to keep his Vatican instructions secret, the defiant priests felt he was simply O’Boyle’s agent, which made it difficult for him to be a mediator. There was no resolution of that conflict. (Contraception is pointedly omitted, or disguised as a “technological challenge” to life, in his consistent-ethic-of-life speeches.)

Over and over, Bernardin had to undertake thankless tasks of internal diplomacy—defending a psychological study of the priesthood that the bishops had commissioned and then canceled, for fear of the results; protecting a liberal Catholic organization (Call to Action); moderating Rome’s disciplinary process directed at Raymond Hunthausen, the bishop of Seattle, who had protested nuclear war and offered masses for gays in his diocese. Hunthausen is not mentioned in either of the volumes of Selected Writings, though Bernardin expended much of his credit with both sides while trying to satisfy Rome and the Seattle constituents of their generous-hearted bishop. It is a sign of the fragility of the Catholic Church’s present structure that a man of such good will, tact, and dedication had to work so hard to maintain even basic cordiality between contending forces. The expenditure of energy needed for shoring up and repairing endangered institutional relations is something still called for, but with no one of quite Bernardin’s stature and skill to perform that necessary service.


If Bernardin was the most important American cardinal in the Church’s post-conciliar period, the most important cardinal worldwide is another Joseph, born April 16, 1927, almost exactly a year before Bernardin’s birth (April 2, 1928)—Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger. Both men came from pious households—Bernardin growing up in an Italian-American family in South Carolina, Ratzinger moving about Bavaria as his father changed jobs. Both were in seminaries studying for the priesthood when World War II broke out. Bernardin was allowed to continue his course, but Ratzinger was required to join the Hitler Youth during his seminary days, and in 1943 he was called up for duty in the anti-aircraft service (where he says he never fired a weapon). He was held briefly in an American prisoner of war camp after Germany’s collapse.


Bernardin was part of an intellectually somnolent Church in the postwar years, but one where he developed American political and pastoral skills. Ratzinger was part of an intellectually stimulating postwar climate in Germany where he became a respected theologian specializing in Saint Augustine (though those familiar with Peter Brown’s Augustine will find a less nuanced father of the Church in Ratzinger’s writings). Bernardin, the nonscholar, would work to promote scholarship in the Church, while Ratzinger the scholar became scholarship’s enemy.

Few could have predicted this outcome from the men’s early days. In the 1960s, Ratzinger served on the board of the progressive journal Concilium, and was friendly with those who wrote for it—Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz. At the Second Vatican Council, he was an adviser (peritus) to Cardinal Joseph Frings, a leader of the progressive forces; Ratzinger helped Karl Rahner create a new text to be substituted for the Curia’s proposal (schema) on the nature of the Church—the writer Yves Congar thought at one point that the Ratzinger-Rahner draft was “too advanced” to be accepted by the council.3 But Sixties unrest in the Church soon had the effect on Ratzinger that campus unrest had on American liberals who bolted the Democratic Party and became neoconservatives.

In 1968, when Ratzinger’s best-selling book, Introduction to Christianity, came out, it was still considered liberal enough that Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski banned it in his diocese of Warsaw. But in that same year of international student demonstrations, Ratzinger gave up his chair at the University of Tübingen, after leftists staged noisy sit-ins in his classes, and he went to the new University of Regensburg in his homeland of Bavaria. In his 1997 memoir, Salt of the Earth, he would write of student protesters in tones resembling Robert Bork’s (“tyrannical, brutal, and cruel”). In 1972 (when some neocons were deserting George McGovern for Ronald Reagan in the American presidential race), Ratzinger helped launch the journal Communio as a counterweight to his former base, Concilium. The theological neoconservatives at Communio would soon win favor with those in Rome who felt that the changes encouraged by Vatican II had gone too far.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI made Ratzinger archbishop of Munich, then quickly raised him to cardinal. In that office Ratzinger helped organize the German bishops’ censure of his old colleagues Johann Baptist Metz and Hans Küng, a forecast of the way he would conceive his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post given him by Pope John Paul II in 1981. This Congregation was formerly known as the Holy Office, the director of the Roman Inquisition. In his younger days, Ratzinger had criticized the Vatican for the secrecy with which it patrolled doctrinal statements, “preventing not only the spread of reliable information but also the furtherance of constructive debate.” In 1968, he was one of 1,360 Catholic theologians signing a statement that called for open proceedings against any theologian suspected of nonconformity with Rome. The accused should have a bill of rights, a right to counsel, to representation

among those scrutinizing his work, to judgment on the whole of his work, taken in proper context.

But Ratzinger, as the current doctrinal enforcer, has neglected those rights, resorting to the Holy Office’s bad old practices of secrecy. John Allen, the Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, writes in his biography of Ratzinger that we do not even know how many theologians have been disciplined by the Congregation: “No one knows the true number because most of the cases remain secret.”

Allen’s book, though full of important information about Ratzinger’s career and changes of position, is frustrating because its chronology is often vague. By isolating themes, he ends up going back and forth over the years, with repetitious references to the same events in a new context. His most original contribution is to argue that Ratzinger sometimes promotes views even more conservative than the Pope’s. He admits that his claim is based on speculation, in most cases, simply because the Vatican has become so secretive. But Allen has evidence from Ratzinger’s own statements that he had misgivings about John Paul II’s ecumenical gestures. When John Paul II called more than two hundred religious leaders to Assisi in 1986, so that they could “be together and pray,” Ratzinger assured the press that “this cannot be the model” for ecumenical dialogue. He said in 1998 that the Church infallibly holds Anglican ordinations to be invalid. Jews were angered when he suggested in 1987 that true Judaism now exists only in the Catholic Church:

Finding faith in Christ, she [the Church] entered into the full inheritance of Abraham…. Entering into unity with Christ, she entered into the very heart of Judaism.

That statement led Jews invited to a Catholic–Jewish conference in Washington to cancel their participation. It is the general assumption in Rome that Ratzinger’s attack on ecumenism in Dominus Jesus (2000)—which condemned expressions like “sister churches”—went beyond what the Pope intended.

Allen may well be right, too, in seeing Ratzinger as the driving force behind the Vatican’s severe campaign against liberation theology in Latin America. The Pope, who encouraged Catholic political activity in Poland, seemed inconsistent in his demand that no challenge be mounted to repressive regimes in Latin America. Allen believes that Ratzinger, remembering how his beloved Bavaria collaborated with Hitler in the 1930s, is suspicious of any political alliances formed by the Church. (Yet opposition to liberation theologians made Rome the de facto ally of President Reagan’s support for authoritarian regimes.)

How true is it that Ratzinger is to the right of John Paul? There is always a tendency to blame unpalatable measures on the king’s ministers rather than on the king himself. Shrewd rulers profit from this instinct, letting their subordinates take some of the heat for policies that are in fact the ruler’s own. Whatever the precise nuances of agreement or disagreement between the Pope and his theological hit man, the two clearly share the same basic outlook on the role of the Church in modern times. The Pope has taken measures to reverse changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council. With Ratzinger as his operative, he has reined in discussion at bishops’ synods and discouraged lay initiatives. Ratzinger is a severe critic of the definition of the Church as “the People of God,” as that was enunciated in the conciliar document Gaudium et spes. He has also called the council’s reference to “man” as the image of God a faulty formulation—he is only the image of Christ, who is the image of God. This, Ratzinger assures us, is the Augustinian attitude, to be distinguished from positions taken by people who are too optimistic about human nature.

In a 1998 document, Ad tuendam fidem, Ratzinger defended papal condemnations of contraception, a married clergy, and women priests as infallible for all practical purposes, though the condemnations do not meet the strict requirements established by the First Vatican Council. In 1995 he had issued a clarification of the Pope’s condemnation of women priests as “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” Though the Pope’s own statement was not infallible of itself, it drew attention to “the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the church.” Neither Ratzinger nor the Pope cares that a vast majority of Catholics now reject such “infallible” teachings. After all “the people of God” is just a misleading “catchword” for Ratzinger.

If some think Ratzinger is taking the Pope further than he would go on his own, others have felt that Ratzinger is complying with papal priorities he would not express on his own. When Ratzinger issued a document endorsing the Pope’s superstition that the Virgin’s third warning at her Fatima appearances was a prediction of the attempt on John Paul’s life, it was hard to suppose that a sophisticated and scholarly man could really believe what he was saying.4 But Ratzinger has a devotion to the Virgin that is almost as deep as John Paul’s. Ratzinger is an enthusiastic supporter of the theology of Han Urs von Balthazar, who professed that he took much of his theology from his mystical friend Adrienne von Speyer (1902–1967), who was “frequently visited by the Blessed Virgin (whom she had first seen in 1917).”5And throughout the 1970s Ratzinger gave regular summer conferences to a group of Marian devotees in the Black Forest who live by the prophecies the Virgin delivered to four children in Garabandal, Spain, from 1961 to 1964.

Though there is no doubt that Ratzinger is sincere in his beliefs, he can resort to petty sophistry in defending them. He has been very critical of liturgical changes brought in by Vatican II, and especially of the way altars were turned around so that priests now face the people (though an earlier hero of his, Romano Guardini, was famous for having made that change long before the council). In his new book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger attacks the idea that the Mass is a meal, and he claims that having the priest face the congregation results in “clericalization” by centering too much attention on the priest: “Is the priest more important than the Lord?” But the private communion of the priest with his sacrament was a way of separating clergy from the people, to whom he turned his back. And Ratzinger’s own congregation, in one of those statements he gives an infallible force, said in 1976 that women cannot be priests because they do not look like Jesus, “making it difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ.”6 What could be more priest-centered than that claim? What Ratzinger does not like is that the people are now included in the ceremony, that “people of God” whom he dismisses.

The present difficulty of the Catholic Church is not simply to hold together the poles represented by the two cardinals Bernardin and Ratzinger. There are factions to the left of Bernardin’s position and to the right of Ratzinger’s. There are people calling for new Marian doctrines and for formal definitions condemning modern heresies. To them Ratzinger is as much a flawed hero as Bernardin was to those who thought him too conciliatory toward the Vatican. But Bernardin was in touch with the majority of the faithful in the pews, while Ratzinger, with better access to the center of power in Rome, is cut off from those people. In a Church with a shrinking priesthood, with open neglect of papal directives, with resistance to authoritarian procedures, Ratzinger believes that the only possible response is an ever tougher line. The truth cannot be compromised. That is the real point of contrast between these two men, each one sincere in his dedication to the Church. Bernardin believed that compromise was needed to keep the people of God together. Ratzinger thinks that compromise is the enemy. Those who personally possess an entire and unchanging truth cannot settle for anything less.

This Issue

April 26, 2001