Pope Journeyed From Reformer to Enforcer

A progressive theology professor raised in the Nazi era recoiled from Marxist agitation.

April 24, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MUNICH, Germany — As student unrest bristled across the campus of Tuebingen University in the 1960s, Marxist rabble rousers would burst into the classroom of Father Joseph Ratzinger, a diminutive intellectual who preferred Mozart and the writings of St. Augustine to the chaotic and changing times around him.

Some of the students heckled the priest, whistling and interrupting his theological lectures. Ratzinger had been a voice for reform in the Roman Catholic Church, but the disrespect of the students and their relentless demands unnerved him and redirected the course of his religious thinking, according to friends, priests and theologians.

"Ratzinger is a letter writer, not a man of confrontation, and he was deeply disturbed by these Marxist commandos," said Hans Kung, a fellow professor at the university four decades ago. "He was wounded internally. He felt betrayed. It was a decisive moment for him. He's timid and suspicious and he developed a complex against reforms."

Rigid morals and devotion to tradition were the central tenets that last week elevated Ratzinger from powerful cardinal to Pope Benedict XVI. Born in the mountains of Bavaria and schooled in a seminary eventually taken over by the Nazis, Benedict was swept into World War II and later forced to confront a world he viewed as spinning away from God and toward the demeaning realms of secularism and liberal politics.

Critics say Benedict's theology is barbed with troubling prejudices. Much of his conservative thinking was inspired by a determination to buttress the church against tyrannies such as fascism and Marxism. The man who once said Mozart's music "contains the whole tragedy of human existence" also equated homosexuality with an "intrinsic moral evil." He can eloquently quote St. Matthew on the suffering of the poor, yet is opposed to the use of condoms to prevent AIDS from spreading in Africa.

The new pope, however, is a man not of contradiction, but complexity, theologians say. His thinking is more nuanced than his public persona as the church's "enforcer of the faith" suggests.

The theologies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are the same, but their personalities are different. John Paul was energetic and possessed a rustic, mystical charm. Benedict was a quiet, shy boy who grew into a timid man, but one who even critics agree is witty and pleasant, a multilingual musician who occasionally seeks out criticism.

"I think he's sometimes caught between his modernist ideas and his conservatism," said Father Josef Gragmaier, pastor of St. Maria's Church in Munich and a childhood friend of Ratzinger who was ordained a priest with him.

"He has this tension inside him. But I think it's useless to compare him as a progressive or a conservative. He knows the scriptures and that the message of Jesus Christ doesn't change."

Devotion to Christ was woven into the foothills and snow-streaked mountains of Bavaria, where Ratzinger was born April 16, 1927. The town of his birth, Marktl am Inn, is about 20 miles from Adolf Hitler's origins in Braunau, Austria.

For centuries the region was known for salt mines, Catholicism and beer brewed from the recipes of friars and monks. Ratzinger and his brother, Georg, were the sons of a police officer. They attended St. Michael's seminary on a rise overlooking their boyhood home outside Traunstein.

Ratzinger would later write in his memoir, "About My Life," that he was bright but not athletic, a deficiency that bothered him because he thought he was holding back his soccer teams.

Nazism seeped across Bavaria in the 1930s. Crucifixes were removed from classrooms, Catholic youth groups met in secret, Nazi rallies were held in the town square near St. Oswald's Church and fascist sympathizers began appearing as teachers and coaches at the seminary.

A 1935 photo shows an 8-year-old Joseph Ratzinger sitting in class with a picture of Hitler hanging beside a chalkboard.

"The Nazis always told us, 'We are the new era,' " Gragmaier said.

The people of Traunstein did not rise up to stop Nazi attacks on Jewish homes and businesses during the anti-Semitic violence of Nov. 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht. They did not later intervene to stop their small community of Jews from being deported to concentration camps.

The Ratzinger family despised the Nazis, according to biographers. But, like many teenagers at the time, Joseph joined the Hitler Youth for fear of retribution. Families that resisted the Nazis paid a price. Father Rupert Berger, a retired priest who lives in Traunstein and also was ordained the same day as Ratzinger, said his father openly opposed National Socialism.

"My father was well known in the resistance," Berger recalled. "He was fired from his job as a health insurance officer and ended up in Dachau.... When my father was released from the concentration camp, he never told us what happened until years later. My father gave me the freedom to join the Hitler Youth. I said no."

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