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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Elevated to Pope Benedict XVI

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a noted conservative within the Catholic church, as Pope Benedict XVI is eliciting mixed reactions from Catholics and other church observers around the world. Theologians and historians discuss Ratzinger's life and work.

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    Now, more on the man who became, today and forevermore, Benedict XVI, and to Gwen Ifill.


    For that I'm joined by Joseph Fessio, professor of theology and provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. He studied under the new pope in Regensburg, Germany.

    Bernd Schaefer, research fellow at the German Historical Institute: His research includes studies of the Catholic Church in Eastern Germany through the communist period to the 1990s.

    And John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican diplomat; he's now assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He's also the author of "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession." Father Fessio, we just heard Father Reese talking about how this was a vote for continuity. You have known the new pope for some years. What kind of shepherd, priest, cardinal, has he been?


    Well, first it's a great, great gift for the church. He is, unlike the image he's often portrayed as having, he's a very gentle, serene and humble man with a great intellect, but listens very well.

    He's going to carry on the legacy of John Paul II. John Paul II had Cardinal Ratzinger at his side for 24 years in the Vatican, longer than any other head of a Vatican office. They saw each other at least every Saturday, on regular business meetings.

    So he's a close associate with John Paul II. He's going to carry out the vision. But he'll do it in a different way. We've been blessed now by two successive really truly great men..


    Professor Pham, a there has been some discussion, he's been described, the new pope, as the enforcer in his years by John Paul's side. Why is that?


    Well, certainly it comes with a territory of his job; as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his job was to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy, to do so in an affirmative way where possible and where that was not possible, to do so with disciplinary sanctions.

    But I agree with Father Fessio, there's more to the man than the Doberman image. While one may disagree with individual policy stances or positions he took, here we're dealing with one of the most gifted individuals to serve in the church. And it makes sense as a gift not just to the church but as to humanity that such an individual is now Benedict XVI.


    Bernd Schaefer, obviously, this is the first German pope in at least hundreds of years. Why is it that he is coping with here? He has himself bemoaned what he called the collapse, almost total collapse of Christianity in Europe. Is that correct?


    I would say if you look at him, you really have to look at his entire biography and just see that he's really so much shaped by the Second Vatican Council, which first of all propelled his career.

    He had an extraordinary career as an academic theologian in the 60s when he was pro Vatican II, he was one of the experts at the council, and later on in the late 60s he got really turned off by the '68 movement, social movement but also by the theology and all the problems it brought to the church.

    And I think from then on he really developed a rather pessimistic view of the reforms of the Vatican, Second Vatican Council and all the implications.

    This finally led him to a rather doctrinal narrow path, which shaped his career for the second half of his biography, particularly when he went to Rome in '81. And it's not surprising when you look at the Ratzinger of the late 60s, that the experiences he had there I think shaped basically his entire life and brought him to that point where he is now.


    And both he and Pope John Paul were also shaped by their experience there in World War II in some ways?


    Maybe yes, because they are basically, they had some experience on the world, but I wouldn't say that actually shaped them to this extent. It's quite different if you look at the Polish pope and at young Ratzinger during World War II in Germany.

    I think those two are shaped by the experiences of the church in turmoil. And the Church was under pressure in communist Poland and the church was in Ratzinger's view under pressure by liberalist tendencies in both Vatican II Germany and Western Europe.

    And I think those two people basically met theologically finally when John Paul II was elected pope in '78 and it's no surprise at all, I guess that the point of the theologian like Ratzinger in '81 had him as his closest advisor.


    Father Fessio, you have overseen the publication of some of the new pope's work when he was cardinal, Ratzinger's report, I believe it was called. Would you agree with what Bernd Schaefer had to say about the pressures in the church that shaped both he and the late pope?


    Well, I'm not sure I quite got the whole question there, Ignatius Press has published 25 books by Cardinal Ratzinger, and I do think he was shaped by his experiences as a young man in Europe.

    And the failure of the experiment to try a noble man by leaving God out of the picture, the so-called "drama of atheist humanism," which was the title of a book by Father Zelubak, a great friend of Cardinal Ratzinger's.

    And so he saw firsthand that if you leave God out of the equation, that you're going to destroy human society, human culture, whether it's through fascism, national socialism or totalitarian communism.

    So he's a man, who like Pope John Paul II believes in the truth, and the dignity of the human person, and that without the truth that comes from Christ, man is destined to live a life which will destroy himself. I think he's shown that in his life and his writings.

    And one of the reasons John Paul II was so admired was not just because he was a great public figure, which he was, he was someone, as Ratzinger said in the funeral speech, always said yes to Christ, that every moment of his life, he lived the Christian life.

    Ratzinger likewise is a man of the truth and that's what brought people out on the streets for John Paul II; not that he was a great charismatic figure only, but everybody knew he stood for truth at a time when people questioned it. He believed it, he lived it, he proclaimed and it shaped his life. Ratzinger will do the same.


    Professor Pham is that adhering to strictly to the truth also, did that serve to tamp down dissent within the church?


    Well, I think the truth really is going to be part and parcel of this new papacy, which is in many senses a continuation. I think the key to understanding Pope Benedict's papacy will be looking back at the sermon, at the homily he gave at the final Mass before the cardinals went into the conclave.

    Between the lines he essentially said John Paul faced down two totalitarianisms with the truth, Nazism and communism but there remains still one challenger on the field what he called the "dictatorship of relativism."

    And he basically summoned his confreres to pick a man who would finish the battle to continue that legacy, and that battle is one I guess they've decided that he should be the standard bearer to face down that dictatorship of relativism with the sword ultimately of the truth.


    Well, let me follow up on that and also pick up on that earlier point that Father Reese made about the continuum here. Is this something, when you say, Professor Pham, that this is something, that relativism is something that he was trying to wipe out, and the truth is something he was trying to keep going.

    Does that mean that he is in step now with the church world wide, the church in Germany, or at least apparently the cardinals today? Is he in step?


    Well, certainly it says that the cardinals who elected him certainly were in symphony with what he proposed with the agenda that he laid out for them. And it's basically, and I hesitate to use this phrase, because it relates to another German of a different faith tradition, but Cardinal Ratzinger essentially said on Monday, "Here I stand, this is what I stand for."

    And the cardinals heard that message and accepted that challenge, and chose him as the man to be that standard bearer. So I think the one thing we can say is he's certainly a man of the truth who speaks truth forcefully, whether one agrees or disagrees with it.


    Mr. Schaefer, how about in Germany, is that the way he is received in general?


    He's very much a known quantity in Germany, because he really was in Rome since '81, and the German church, many bishops and many laypeople had quite some problems with him, and I think he himself considers German church and other Western European churches certainly as churches in major trouble, churches who basically have to shrink to the healthy core of the truth of true Catholicism.

    I think he really has given up any notion that there will be widespread popular church or re-evangelization of Catholicism in Western Europe, because the first task in Western Europe now is to go back to the healthy roots and from there on try step by step in a very long run to re-evangelize.

    But do not make any compromises with the secular world which actually might somehow obfuscate the message of the church. And I think he's very clear on that. And that's the image he has in Germany. He has quarreled with the church many times.

    And I think most of the German bishops and certainly also most of German Catholics certainly did not consider him as the German man in the Vatican. He was the representative of the worldwide church, he was the leader working together with the pope, but Germany was just one among many other cases.


    Father Fessio, in other parts of the world where the Catholic Church has been exploding in its growth like in Latin America, the new pope, Benedict is known most for his stands on liberation theology, that is his discouragement of that movement. Could you describe what that was about?


    Well, first of all, it's one Catholic Church and it's universal. And Cardinal Ratzinger as the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith had the task of insuring the integrity of doctrine throughout the church.

    One of the difficulties you saw in liberation theology was it was based on the same kind of Marxist analysis that he had seen fail in Europe, that cannot try and alleviate the difficulties of the poor by leaving God out and by trying to have violent revolutions.

    You see one of the things which is important is his name; he took the name Benedict. St. Benedict was a saint of the 6th Century who, when the Roman Empire was invaded by barbarians, was declining, was corrupting from within.

    Benedict left the city of Rome, went out into the countryside, Subiaco, and prayed. Others joined him, he founded a monastery, by 1200 there were 40,000 Benedictine monasteries throughout Europe.

    The Benedictines, through prayer and worship and praise of God, through leaving a corrupting superpower, actually gave Europe its culture, created Christendom and I think that Ratzinger, just as Father just said, wants to go back to that root, that origin which made Europe great and gave it great art and great music and literature and history and philosophy and theology.

    He wants to go back to that and re-evangelize Europe. Also very important: He didn't publish many books the last years because what he published was many collections of talks, collections of articles he'd written, but he did publish one book called "The Spirit of the Liturgy."

    And that was his vision of what it member to worship God in a beautiful and profound and reverent way. And he believes the way to transform human society is to transform the heart, and that every heart is made for God, to worship God privately but also worship God publicly.

    And so I believe that because Benedict founded monasteries whose work was the work of God, worship and prayer, that he is going to bring fruition to a great renewal of the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council promised.


    And, finally Professor Pham, what do you think that this elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger says about what Pope John Paul's legacy to other denominations into other religions?


    Well, picking up where Father Fessio left off, speaking about St. Benedict, the founder and father of western monasticism, I might refer to the last pope named Benedict, Benedict XV 1914-1922.

    He was in many respects the first truly modern pope as well, a pope whose proposals for ending the first World War, although unsuccessful, many were incorporated by President Wilson in his famous 14 points, a pope who sent aid to Russia, in the famines following the First World War, who's commemorated even today in secular Turkey by a statue erected for his humanitarian work.

    So in many respects, picking up on the doctrinal Christian roots, there's also going to be a continuation of the openness of John Paul, perhaps in a different way, in a different style.

    But there's that dynamic which really is unstoppable and really is part of the mission of the Church itself to reach out to others, to embrace others. And so we might expect that to continue as well.


    Professor John-Peter Pham, Father Joseph Fessio and Bernd Schaefer, thank you all for joining us.


    God bless you.

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