The Guardian 27 April, 2005

Grand Inquisitor
becomes Pope Benedict XVI


Bob Briton

Benedict XVI has formally succeeded John Paul II as Pontiff after having been elected by the conclave of cardinals in the Vatican. The elevation of Joseph Ratzinger, the Cardinal of Munich, was a dramatic but hardly surprising decision. The previous Pope had hand-picked all but three of the 115 cardinals that were to take part in his successor’s election and it is clear that he had wanted them to elect another reactionary from among themselves.


Ratzinger has been called “God’s Rottweiler”, the “Panzer Cardinal” and the “Grand Inquis­itor” — with good reason. The kindest thing that has been said about him in recent media coverage is that, while he joined the Hitler Youth in his native Bavaria — young people in Germany at the time simply had no choice — neither he nor his police officer father were members of the Nazi Party. Some have given him an anti-Nazi credibility because in the very last days of WWII, he deserted the crumbling German military (where ill-health had delayed his basic training) and was taken POW by the Americans.

Very few commentators have tried to present Benedict XVI’s election as a progressive development. Even his choice of name is instructive. It is believed that Ratzinger greatly respects the memory of Benedict XV (1914-1922) who, to his credit, pleaded with world leaders to pull back from the conflict that became WWI. However, he is most famous for his crackdown on the doctrinal reform or “modernism” that grew under his predecessor Pius X.

A survey of Ratzinger’s career makes it clear that it is this aspect of his namesake’s legacy that the new Benedict wants to keep alive. From 1947 onwards, when the young Ratzinger joined Herzogliches Georgianum theological institute of the University of Munich, it was clear that the budding theologian and academic wanted to be a big hitter for conservative Catholic ideology. He became a lecturer at the universities at Bonn, Münster and then at Tübingen.

He was at the University of Tübingen when the student protests that rocked Europe in the late 1960s took place. He was outraged at the progressive trend of political developments of the time and saw Marxism as a serious challenger to the religious orthodoxy he was committed to.

While the capitalist powers carried on their immoral war in Vietnam and pushed the world to the brink of annihilation with the escalation of the arms race, Ratzinger chose to be disturbed by the legitimate protests of the youth of the time: “There was the instrumentalisation by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the [Second Vatican] Council.”

Ratzinger was made Archbishop and then Cardinal of Munich in 1977 and in 1981 was made Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II. Until 1965 this body had been called the Holy Office of the Inquisition and its head was known as the Grand Inquisitor. Under Ratzinger the office took on much of its previous authoritarian atmosphere and function. He was entrusted with the struggle against Liberation Theology that had gained a strong following among the poor of Latin America. Its publications were banned and clergy adhering to its anti-capitalist principles were forced out of the Church or otherwise prevented from teaching and organising.

Opposed to social change

Benedict XVI is as opposed to social change and reform of the Church as his predecessor. Last week a Vatican spokesman made this plain when he described as “wicked” recent legislation before the Spanish parliament that may lead to recognition of same-sex marriages. Benedict XVI is opposed to women serving as priests and abhors the “classic principle of the tolerance of the lesser evil” behind the promotion of condoms in the fight against the spread of AIDS.

He downplays the child sex abuse scandals that have beset the Church in recent years. He would prefer a return to the days of covering up of these sensitive issues. He said of the media exposures on this question: “One comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the Church”. While Ratzinger was chief Vatican administrator under John Paul II, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was promoted to head a basilica in Rome, effectively rewarding him for his failure to deal with child sex abuse cases involving the clergy in the Boston area.

In some respects, Ratzinger may try to turn the clock back further than John Paul II by ending the Church’s display of ecumenism in recent times. He is open in his promotion of the old-school belief that the Catholic faith is the one and only true religion. He would have us believe that Buddhism might overtake Marxism as the main enemy in the battle of ideas in Europe as more and more people take on the Eastern religion.

The main plank in his platform, however, is that the capitalist economic base of society should be left well enough alone and that a new Catholic fundamentalism should triumph in the ideological sphere. Ignoring his own role and the role of his predecessor in the economic and social decay around us, he worries most that we are moving towards a “dictatorship of relativism” that has too little regard for his particular brand of intolerance.

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