New Liberal Image for Benedict XVI for His Trip to Australia; But Is It Accurate?

Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian religion editor Barney Zwartz has tried to create a new image for Pope Benedict XVI on the eve of his visit to Australia. According to Mr. Zwartz, Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is a far more gentle and liberal figure than his immediate predecessor and former boss, Pope John Paul II. “There have been continuities,” Mr. Zwartz writes, “but in many ways he has been a stark contrast – more self-effacing, gentle and intellectual – to the previous Pope, for whom he was chief adviser and doctrinal watchdog.” According to Mr. Zwartz, since Benedict XVI took over the papacy from John Paul II, “there have been no heresy hunts, few confrontations, a much less visible presence and much less travel. His writings, including encyclicals on love and hope, have been optimistic. A profound and subtle theologian, he has sought to engage and to persuade, inside and outside the church.”


The masters of papal image making at the Vatican could not promote such comparisons openly, but Mr. Zwartz’s article does the job for them. Whether what he wrote has any element of truth to it is, however, debatable. After all, the “heresy hunts” under Pope John Paul II, to which Zwartz refers to in his article, were conducted by Cardinal Ratzinger.


While doing research for my book Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, (O-Books, June 2008) I saw plenty of evidence that Cartidinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II saw eye to eye on nearly all the issues affecting women: such as abortion, birth control, and women priests. They were in total agreement on all principle points. If anything, Cardinal Ratzinger was the one advocating slightly less flexible positions on the role of women in the Church.


Benedict XVI has always been a great admirer of Pope John Paul II. As a former close advisor to John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger did not think conservative Polish upbringing and life under fascism and communism made the Polish Pope incapable of understanding Western cultures and Western women. He was convinced John Paul II had a unique ability to combine his vast experience, intellectual analysis, and faith to investigate with unprecedented human empathy “the nature of virginity, marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, the language of the body, and, thus, the essence of love.”


I found plenty of evidence of John Paul II’s deep faith, as well as many examples of his unprecedented human empathy on a personal level, but even Cardinal Ratzinger admitted that “when the Pope speaks, he does not speak in his own name.” His personal empathy may not extend to matters that affect the whole Church if he thinks his public statements might encourage unwanted behavior. Cardinal Ratzinger also defended John Paul II from criticism that, being a Pole, he only knew “the sentimental, traditional piety of his country and hence cannot completely understand the complicated issues of the Western world.” Ratzinger concluded that such a criticism is both “foolish” and “shows a complete ignorance of history.” He pointed out that Poland has always been at the intersection of various cultures: Germanic, Romance, Slavic, and Greco-Byzantine.


In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) took action against American Catholic priest Father Matthew Fox who is a leading exponent of Creation Spirituality. In 1992, Father Fox was expelled from the Dominican Order and subsequently became an Episcopal priest. One of the reasons for the Vatican’s harsh treatment of Dr. Fox may have been his advocacy of equal treatment of women in the Catholic Church. Fox accused John Paul II of taking action against feminist philosophers, preventing girls from serving at the altar and denying priesthood to women. According to Dr. Fox, Cardinal Ratzinger called his work “dangerous and deviant.”


U.S. Catholic newspaper, The National Catholic Reporter, published a list of 24 prominent theologians and others who had been silenced or subjected to various forms of papal discipline under Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. The list includes such names as: Fr. Hans Küng, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, Fr. Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Fr. Karl Rahner, Fr. Matthew Fox, a sister of Mercy Mary Agnes Mansour, the former archbishop of Seattle Raymond Hunthausen, Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick who ministered to homosexuals, a Brazilian Sister of Notre Dame Ivone Gebara and several others. While Mr. Zwartz makes a big deal of a recent meeting between Benedict XVI and Father Küng, when the Vatican took the initial action against Father Küng, Cardinal Ratzinger strongly supported and carried out John Paul II’s instructions.


Cardinal Ratzinger also shared John Paul II’s low opinion of American liberalism, and Western liberalism in general. In a 1984 interview, he suggested that being rich is a measure of one’s worth in North America and “the values and style of life proposed by [American] Catholics appear more than ever as a scandal.”


Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the 1994 Apostolic Letter on reserving priestly ordination to men alone, was one of many documents and statements from Pope John Paul II designed to counter radical feminist influences within the Church and to quiet demands for ordination of women-priests. In October 1995, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter signed by its then Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger. In the letter, Cardinal Ratzinger amplified, explained and defended papal arguments against the ordination of women by stressing the constancy of the Church’s tradition and teachings on the subject from the very beginning of Christianity. Cardinal Ratzinger explained that while John Paul II did not invoke papal infallibility, his ban on the ordination of women should nevertheless be considered as infallible because it is based on the infallibility of the “ordinary magisterium” of all the bishops agreeing with a particular Church teaching. At the same time, Cardinal Ratzinger repeated the argument used by John Paul II that the denial of priesthood to women can only be properly understood in the context of what the Church teaches about “the equal personal dignity of men and women”—as exemplified by the role of Virgin Mary, who was not selected by Jesus to be an Apostle or a priest. In Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, “diversity of mission in no way compromises equality of personal dignity.” In an attempt to diffuse the claim of male domination within the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger also argued that the ministerial priesthood is “not a position of privilege or human power over others.”


Barney Zwartz describes Benedict XVI as “a profound and subtle theologian” who “has sought to engage and to persuade, inside and outside the church.” Catholic liberals and women demanding ordination to priesthood would have disagreed with this assessment. Cardinal Ratzinger had revoked the ordination of Ludmila Javorova, who had been ordained as priest by a Catholic bishop in communist Czechoslovakia to enable her to hear confessions and serve communion in prisons, to which males priests had no easy access. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, also asserted that it would be incorrect and even absurd to consider the ordination of women to the priesthood as one aspect of the liberation of women. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which through its members and Cardinal Ratzinger invariably reflected the views of the Pope, has implied among other things that allowing women to become priests could undermine the Church’s current position on the complementarity of the sexes and lead to the neutering of society.


In 1997, Dr. Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun, and Fr. Robert Nugent, a Roman Catholic priest, co-founded New Ways Ministry, an organization providing ministry and support to gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. In 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the leadership of Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger disciplined both Gramick and Nugent and ordered them to stop writing and speaking out on issues of homosexuality. Gramick rejected the order and transferred from the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the Sisters of Loretto, which support her in her ministry on behalf of lesbian and gay people. After being silenced, Father Nugent remains a priest in good standing. In 2005, New Ways Ministry raised concerns about the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy: “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s record at the Vatican has been marked by decisions to end discussion on important questions and issues facing Catholics and the world. His hard-handed tactics of silencing theologians and using language that offends rather than heals have caused much alienation and anger….His record on lesbian/gay issues has been notoriously insensitive. Instead of listening to the voices of the laity, or even of other bishops, he has been the architect of documents and policies that reveal a tremendous lack of understanding of homosexuality and of the experiences of lesbian/gay people.” A conservative Catholic web site, describes New Ways Ministry as “militant advocate of homosexuality which also demands ordination and ministry for homosexuals.”


In his 2004 Letter to the Bishops on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, Cardinal Ratzinger blamed radical feminism for overemphasizing the subordination of women and forcing them to seek power, although he did not specifically use the words “feminism” or “feminists” in the letter. This tendency, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, leads to competition between sexes with “lethal effects in the structure of the family.” He also blamed radical feminism for minimizing and obscuring the differences between the sexes. In Cardinal Ratzinger’s view, this kind of reasoning makes “homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent” and calls into question the role of “the family in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father.”15 The document was approved by Pope John Paul II.


There is strong resistance to radical feminism, homosexual marriages, legalized abortion, contraception and ordination of women-priests among conservative Catholics who applauded Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope. At the very beginning of his papacy, John Paul II also put his faith in this group of dedicated religious conservatives. At that time, he was strongly encouraged and supported by Cardinal Ratzinger. Australian religion editor Barney Zwartz’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald was an attempt to change Pope Benedict XVI’s image and make him look more liberal before his trip to Australia, but there is little historical and factual support for Mr. Zwartz’s arguments.


Wojtyla's Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic ChurchTed Lipien is a former director of the Polish Service of the Voice of America (VOA) and a journalist with more than 30 years of reporting and writing about politics, society, women’s issues, and the Catholic Church in Poland. His book, Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, has been published in June 2008 by O-Books in the U.K. There is more information on his website:


Pope Benedict XVI Photo Source: |Author=eürodäna @ Flickr |Date=2006-06-07 | This photo is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.