The problem with discussing popes is that you tend not to know too much about them. Certainly, their biographies will be well known — tales from their childhoods, accounts of how they heard their ‘calling’ and entered the priesthood, resumés of their ascent through the Catholic hierarchy— but rarely do you get any reliable idea of what they are actually like, as people. In particular, it is often hard to fathom their motivations — not the polished proclamations and official statements they make but their genuine fears and wishes.
This is partly because they are usually only heard from in their carefully-controlled official capacity, where their speech, if not scripted, is certainly guarded and opaque. It is also partly because when a believer takes up a position in the Vatican they automatically fall behind the velvet curtain of obscurity and mystery that the Catholic Church habitually shrouds its employees in. There is no more apt spectacle describing the Catholic Church than that of the crowds of people, ordinary Catholics, standing in St Peter’s Square, with no indication of what is going on, while the upper ranks of the Catholic hierarchy meet in seclusion to discuss and vote on who will be the next Pope. The cardinals eventually make their selection, by means of a ballot that is secret even to each other, announcing this to the world by burning their ballot papers, releasing white smoke from the chimney. This most basic of smoke signals leads to rapturous applause from the gathered masses, not least because it is the closest the average person will get to knowing anything about how Vatican decisions are made. If the Catholic Church is anything, it is a bunch of robed old men shuffling around excluded rooms while the world waits outside, straining its eyes to see through the smoke.
With Joseph Ratzinger’s resignation, we get to “see” this process happen again, and with that wisp of an answer floating across the square we are introduced to a new pontiff, theoretically with a new set of principles and a fresh outlook but in practice merely a slightly differently-shaped dot standing waving at the window of the papal apartments. However it is worth taking one last moment to reflect on Ratzinger’s career before he disappears into an equally shady retirement. Enough ink has been spilled about his involvement in muddying and obfuscating the exposure of paedophile priests, and there are jokes aplenty about his childhood in the Hitler Youth. But another characteristic phase of his career involves his vehement opposition and smothering of the Marxist-aligned clerical movement known as liberation theology. It is here that we get an idea of why it was that he rose up through the ranks so strongly, ultimately to its highest position.
Catholicism has always been endemic to Latin America. Poverty, violence, exploitation and oppression have too. The repressions and dictatorships of the 60s and 70s spurred many of the rank and file clergy in Latin America to adapt their thinking and their methods to actively assist the poor and disenfranchised in gaining a fairer, more egalitarian, society, to exercise what they called the “preferential option for the poor”, to liberate the masses from poverty. The Church seemed to have become too comfortable working alongside repressive, corrupt regimes, and was in danger of losing its moral credibility. Working at ground level amongst the people under the cosh had made it impossible for many priests to ignore the roots and causes of poverty, particularly as described by Marxism; they realised that it was no good to merely give hand-outs and run soup-kitchens — if one really wanted the poor to be uplifted one had to challenge the social order. In the 70s, this meant solidarity and assistance to revolutionary movements such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or even merely speaking out against state injustice and corruption in an unequivocal way that Rome did not. Many of them shared the persecution of the poor, others attracted the ire of the U.S., and some even died for their cause, such as the Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, shot dead by regime thugs as he lifted the chalice during a mass in 1980.
The liberation theologians insisted that their work was grounded in their faith. They re-read the gospels with an eye for themes of liberation and took inspiration from the Old Testament books of Exodus and Prophets, both arousing passions for oppressed peoples and denouncing injustices. Proponents of the theology such as the Brazilian (now ex-)cleric Leonardo Boff insisted ad nauseam that their interest in Marxism was only as a way of scientifically understanding the class struggle and the distribution of power and not because they had lost faith in the traditional approach of the Church.
As interest in liberation theology spread, so did the corresponding response from the Vatican. At first Rome tried sympathising with the liberation theologians, in the hope of re-aligning them with the traditional approach. When this failed to reign in the runaway theology Rome’s efforts became more concerted. Some priests were dismissed from their posts, others censured and barred from engaging in conferences and decisions — Boff was suspended. Orthodox clerics towing the Vatican line were sent to take over the offices and street-level base communities that the liberationists worked so well from, and their social centres were closed. This reassertion of authority made it clear that there was to be only one way permissible — that which had the stamp of orthodox approval of the Vatican.
Ratzinger, in his position as head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Divine Faith, spearheaded this smothering. Tasked with policing theological purity, he worked with Pope John Paul II in reigning in the rebel priests and issued his own letters and proclamations attacking the liberationists as anything short of heretical. It is with this tenacious response that we start to see a picture of the man. This can be difficult and misleading, a bit like trying to infer a politician’s honesty from their speeches or a product’s worth from it’s advert, but the only way to ever really know what someone like Ratzinger is thinking is through his work and pronouncements.
Ratzinger’s responses to liberation theology betray his two main fears: the threat to orthodox Catholicism from competing ideas and ideologies, and the loss of authority of the Rose-based hierarchy. The Church is not a democracy; it is an autocracy stiffly centralised around the Pope and the official line. The liberationists were preaching that contact with the poor was indispensable, and that this experience should guide their behaviour, an idea that horrified Ratzinger. In the preliminary notes to his instructions on liberation theology, Ratzinger bemoaned the fact that the “experience of the ‘community’ determines the understanding and the interpretation of Scripture” when previously it had been the Church. By criticizing tradition the liberationists were “encouraging people all the more to produce new constructions,” while the Marxist-influenced ideas offered “models of action by which people believed they could respond to the moral challenge of misery in the world as well as realize the proper meaning of the biblical message.”
The problem with this is easy to spot: by empowering people to recognise their own situations and potentials, the liberationists were weakening the influence of the Church. In Ratzinger’s own words “it has to do with a challenge to the ‘sacramental and hierarchical structure’ of the Church.” The Church’s control thrives on the petty authoritarianism of its hierarchical layers of bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the like, but this is nullified if the lower clergy are following their own consciences. If ground-level clergy were acting with the people to come up with their own solutions, they weren’t bowing to the authority of Rome as they should. Like all autocracies, Rome is obsessed with the totality of its control; whether the movements were popular amongst the people was irrelevant — it was the moral authority, the magisterium, of the Church, that was most important.
If man were to liberate himself who would need the Church? Ratzinger is adamant that the experience of the poor not inform the clergy. Enacting social change tampers with the rules of the game; it makes the Vatican redundant and the Pope impotent. History would be reduced to “a process of the self-redemption of man by means of the class struggle,” Ratzinger wrote, anathema surely to a body that defines itself as the only path to redemption. Tradition would be left to hang “in a vacuum… deprived of reality.” If the new Marxist approach showed the Church to be outdated in its view to the poor, then “in the future her statements could only be seen as futile attempts to defend a position which was scientifically obsolete.” Nobody would need the Church.
Ratzinger reserved a particular venom for the real enemies of the Church, science and rationalism. He deplored that “the idea of a turning to the world, of responsibility for the world, frequently deteriorated into a naive belief in science which accepted the human sciences as a new gospel” and that “psychology, sociology and the Marxist interpretation of history seemed to be scientifically established and hence to become unquestionable arbiters of Christian thought.” Marxism is a competing creed, and one thing ideological brands like Catholicism hate is competition.
He displayed his conservatism further by asserting that liberation theology has errors “uncritically borrowed from Marxist ideology” that lead to an interpretation of the bible “marked by rationalism.” In his 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology he wrote ominously “Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory.” Science, rationalism and atheism were considered so toxic that to consult them in any way, even to solve an earthly problem, was considered dangerous.
We have established so far that Ratzinger is an unbendable conservative who gleefully protected the hierarchy of the Church whilst still being insecure enough about the troubling encroachment of science and rationalism to bring them into the argument, so as to smear the liberation movement by association. Like all fanatics he went to extraordinary lengths to discredit any view of the world other than the Church’s, thus preserving his own peace of mind.
He also revealed himself to be wily, in particular when it comes to employing that particular duplicity that religious instructors habitually possess: he knew full well of the ‘irresistible logic’ of liberation theology, and so constructed part of his argument against the very idea of getting involved at all, knowingly side-stepping the question. “God, and not man, has the power to change the situations of suffering,” he wrote in his treatise on liberation theology, hoping to spiritually hamstring the efforts of the rebel priests, whilst knowing full well that this would change nothing and help nobody. “Liberation is first and foremost… about sin,” he wrote, meaning that “liberation” should really mean a spiritual transformation, as “it is only by making an appeal to the ‘moral potential’ of the person and to the constant need for interior conversion, that social change will be brought about.” This negates the need to actually do anything. It also presupposed any “moral potential” on the part of Latin America’s finest, amongst them Somoza, Pinochet, Videla and the junta thugs that repressed countries like El Salvador and Guatemala.
Ratzinger was unforgivably out of touch. Indeed, it was the firsthand experiences of the liberationist clergy in Latin America that led to their theology, but this was an unappreciated and distant situation for Ratzinger, thousands of miles away in the Vatican. It took a lifetime of safety and provision in the Church for him to write that “Impatience and a desire for results has led certain Christians, despairing of every other method, to turn to what they call ‘Marxist analysis’.” When he wrote that, in 1984, poverty had reached catastrophic levels in some parts of Central America and up to 30,000 had been killed or “disappeared” in Argentina alone; you could forgive those oppressed peoples for being “impatient”. This was not lost on the ex-Catholic priest Philip Berryman when he wrote in his book Liberation Theology that “sipping espresso in a Roman piazza, Ratzinger might come to an insight that eludes [liberation theologian] Boff as he slogs through thee jungle with blistered feet… In the ordinary run of things, however, Boff’s pastoral practice will have a positive impact on his intellectual work.”
Ratzinger took his conservative fervour with him when he was rebranded as Pope Benedict XVI. In many ways the Catholic Church behaves like a commercial company, and one thing branded companies do not like is anyone revealing the true nature of their product; just like tv adverts for shiny new cars or glistening pancakes it is the orthodox image we are sold, not the reality. Similarly, it is the original recipe, and only the original recipe, that they are plugging. Ratzinger’s history of keeping the brand pure from criticism, revision and reason put him in good stead for the top job; these skills also came in handy when a cool head was needed to hide the small army of paedophile priest scandals that had reached Vatican attention from the 80s on. Now he is retiring, citing old age and infirmity; not unreasonable, given the embarrassing decrepitude of his predecessor, and not unthinkable given the latest flurry of Catholic scandal; perhaps he just didn’t have another round in him.
So farewell then, Joseph Ratzinger, we hardly knew ye. Are we any closer to knowing what you are really thinking? Probably not, but with a new pontiff waiting in the wings we may not recall you much from now on. With a click of your ruby-red Prada slippers you will leave Oz and rejoin the real world, where liberation is rare, and salvation even rarer still.
- Introducing Liberation Theology, Leonardo Boff & Clodovis Boff, Burns & Oates 1987.
- Saints and Sandinistas: The Catholic Church in Nicaragua and its Response to the Revolution, Andrew Bradstock, Eprorth Press 1987.
- Liberation Theology, Philip Berryman, IB Taurus & Co. 1987.