VATICAN CITY — Twenty years ago, Father Joseph A. Ratzinger was an architect of progressive reform in the Second Vatican Council.
The young German theologian helped draft a searing attack on the 450-year-old Holy Office, the body responsible for defending Roman Catholic faith from heresy. The speech said the "methods and behavior" of the Holy Office--which descended from the medieval Inquisition--were "outdated (and) . . . a source of scandal to the world."
Largely because of that speech, Pope Paul VI on the last day of the council thoroughly modernized the operations of the Holy Office and renamed it the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Now Heads Congregation
Today, as prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger heads the organization he once criticized.
But now, he is accused of trying to reverse the progressive trends of Vatican II he previously championed--by stifling diversity and reining in theological inquiry.
In the five years since Pope John Paul II handpicked him to be the church's official "defender of the faith" and ultimate judge of Catholic scholars, Ratzinger has shaped the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into a powerful weapon against dissent.
And in the wake of the recent disciplining of American scholar Father Charles Curran and Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, no one--the Pope included--has come under such bitter attack as the 59-year-old Ratzinger and his "watchdog" congregation.
The congregation's actions against Curran, who lost his authority to teach as an official church theologian, and Hunthausen, who was relieved of pastoral responsibility in five key areas, have triggered an outpouring of protest by U.S. theological societies, priests, lay persons and even bishops.
Critics of the congregation contend that regional church councils and bishops could adequately defend the faith and that the Vatican body is too rigid. Because of its broad powers to ferret out and punish dissent, opponents say, the congregation creates a chilling effect on innovative theological work and a climate of suspicion that reaches even to local priests and their parishioners.
"There do seem to be some signals in the direction of a crackdown," said Father Frank Sullivan, a Jesuit professor of theology at Gregorian University, a Pontifical school in Rome. "There seems to be a chill blowing, you know."
But Ratzinger's supporters say that his moves against dissent are in full harmony with the Pope's own theological views and are necessary to save the church from being undermined from within.
While the church and society once saw eye to eye on questions of sexual mores, Ratzinger said in a brief meeting with The Times, society has pulled away from that consensus, and the church must reassert its teachings.
Thus Ratzinger, as the Pope's chief doctrinal enforcer, has emerged as the second most powerful figure in the Vatican. "There isn't a single issue of church and theology the Pope and Ratzinger would disagree on," said Father Joseph Fessio, 45, a Jesuit who studied under Ratzinger in West Germany.
At the same time, Ratzinger is the acknowledged "lightning rod" for the Pope, deflecting criticism that would otherwise be heaped on the Pontiff directly.
"Ratzinger's job is a thankless one," declared a high Vatican official, who, like most other church officials interviewed, spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "It's inevitable that he would be seen as the 'fall guy.' And general civility within the church would avoid an overly blunt, personal attack on the Pope."
However, a top church official, an American in Rome, said the impetus for the moves against Curran and Hunthausen originated not with Ratzinger or the Pope, but with church conservatives in the United States. These conservatives are "hiding behind the cardinal skirts of Ratzinger" and making him "the ax man, the bad guy," the official said.
"The pattern emerges clearly with the Curran case," the church official continued. "Powerful people at home on the extreme right wing--those who have money, and the ear of people here, (at the Vatican) . . . who hate everything Charles Curran stands for--scream in the face of what they see as abuse.
'Creating a Backlash'
"The ultraconservative right in the U.S. church . . . is creating a backlash against a freewheeling, progressive approach to religion and also to politics."
These conservative U.S. organizations, the Rome source said, include the independent Catholic weekly, the Wanderer; the lay group, Catholics United for the Faith, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, an association of more than 700 conservative theologians headed by Msgr. George A. Kelly of St. John's University in New York.
Catholics United for the Faith, based in New Rochelle, N.Y., has a membership of about 15,000 and its publication, Lay Witness, presents traditionalist support for the official teaching authority of the church.