As his second anniversary nears, the pope's stern image has faded
Popular expectations surrounding Pope Benedict XVI as he assumed the papacy in 2005 can be summed up in one word: Panzer — as in the virtually unstoppable German battle tank. The Panzer Cardinal — as the German and then the foreign press dubbed the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — earned the unflattering nickname because he was seen as ideological enforcer for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Indeed, Ratzinger's position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith placed him on the front lines of John Paul's campaign to maintain papal authority during controversies such as the 1980s debate over “liberation theology.”
A theology professor before he began his 23-year service in the Vatican hierarchy, Ratzinger left an enormous paper trail in both positions. The voluminous record — plus his close association with the world-shaking John Paul — created a specialty in Ratzinger-Benedict studies among Catholic intellectuals. Adding to the interest was Ratzinger's first-hand experience on the German side in World War II. Although his family was anti-Nazi, he went from compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth to teenage draftee in an anti-aircraft unit from 1943 until the war's end in 1945.
Pope Benedict XVI greets visitors at his weekly audience at the Vatican on Jan. 10, 2007. (AFP/Getty Images/Osservatore Romano Arturo Mari)
Another major influence, some Ratzinger-Benedict experts say, was Ratzinger's presence at the Protestant University of Tübingen during the student revolts that broke out in Western Europe and the United States in 1968. The uprisings left Ratzinger “aghast” with their intolerance and their embrace of Marxist dogmatism and atheism, David Gibson, a former Vatican Radio correspondent, writes in a book on Benedict's new papacy.
But with Benedict approaching the second anniversary of his papacy, the image of the stern, inflexible pontiff has faded. Indeed, John L. Allen, Jr., a Vatican-watcher for the National Catholic Reporter who wrote a tough biography of the then-cardinal in 2000, acknowledged after Benedict's elevation that the portrait of him as an enforcer had been unbalanced because of the cardinal's position in developing doctrine. “The nature of that job imposes a certain profile on somebody,” Allen said later. “To use a banal example, the least popular member of the faculty in high school is the one who enforces the dress code and punishes. But take them out of that job and put them back in the classroom, and the kids discover a whole different person.”
Others agree that Benedict has been inaccurately characterized. “He's not a culture warrior in the same way as John Paul II,” says M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame University. Benedict, she says, might be more difficult to pigeon-hole. She cites a talk that Benedict gave last November to a group of Swiss bishops in which he lamented the constant discussion of the ordination of women, contraception and abortion. “If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions,” he said, “the church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears.”
Nevertheless, a conservative Catholic argues that, even as liberals depicted Ratzinger as the “bad cop” of the John Paul papacy, others tried to position the German prelate as the calming, moderating influence on the more conservative John Paul. “The self-styled 'progressive' party in Catholic intellectual and leadership circles . . . believed (and told the equally credulous press) that it was Ratzinger who was keeping the wild man John Paul II from acting on some of his more peculiar notions,” writes George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
All pope-watchers agree that Benedict's training as a theologian makes him more at home in his study than on the world stage. Nevertheless, Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, credits the pope with elegant stagecraft on his 2006 visit to the Blue Mosque in Turkey. “You can't go to someone's mosque and pray with them and then say, 'You're going to burn in hell.' ”