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How Authoritarianism Created the Crisis Engulfing the Roman Catholic Church

A half century ago, the Catholic Church had a chance for reform in the Second Vatican Council, with a young advocate in Joseph Ratzinger. But reactionary popes shunted reform aside, with Ratzinger later joining them as Pope Benedict XVI.

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And so, he too ignored in practice the council’s teaching on collegiality. He also curtailed the teaching role of national conferences of bishops because he disagreed with their consulting lay people as they formulated teaching on peace, nuclear weapons and economic justice, which were critical of some U.S. policies in these areas.

Backing Away

While Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) from 1982-2005, there is little evidence that he urged John Paul to endorse the complete progressive agenda of the council.

Instead Cardinal Ratzinger targeted theologians for repressive surveillance, and he engendered a mood of fear and anxiety in theologians who were seeking to explore issues like the ordination of women and of married men in order to overcome a priest shortage that was depriving the People of God in many areas of ministry and especially of Eucharist to which they have a divine right.

Indeed, at one point Pope John Paul declared the issue of the ordination of women as definitively settled, something that was beyond his capacity to do. No one, not even a pope, can declare settled definitively or otherwise an issue that has just begun to be explored by theologians and historians and which the People of God were discerning prayerfully.

John Paul smuggled the aura of infallibility into a discussion where it did not belong. In reality, he was imposing his will on the Church, an exercise in a voluntarism (the will of the superior has the force of law) that has traditionally been rejected  in Catholic moral tradition. And in this John Paul was supported by Cardinal Ratzinger, who in his own papacy acted punitively towards proponents of the ordination of women.

There are no valid reasons in scripture or in the Church’s tradition that rule out the ordination of women. Women who were leaders in the Jesus movement routinely presided at liturgies and celebrated Eucharist, but today every effort is made to maintain the Church as a patriarchal community.

The anger displayed at the mention of the ordination of women reminds one of the hostility prejudiced whites in the South exhibited towards the struggle for rights for African-Americans and in both cases it was maintenance of the power structure – in one case white supremacist and in the other patriarchal – that was at stake.

Ratzinger’s Reversal

A burning question is why did Dr. Ratzinger turn his back on council teaching and its progressive agenda? And the answer has much to do with the student revolt of 1968 which scared Dr. Ratzinger. The great deference shown to German professors gave way to jeering and cat-calls. He himself speaks of noticing “all kinds of terror, from subtle psycho-terror up to violence” in university assemblies in which he participated.

But was a student rebellion enough to make him set aside his deepest convictions about the council and become himself someone who morally browbeat others with whom he disagreed? A case in point is Leonardo Boff, one of the most insightful theologians of liberation who was hounded out of the Brazilian community of theologians by Cardinal Ratzinger, who appears not to have grasped what the theology of liberation meant to the poor and oppressed and the promise it held for the universal church.

As pope, Benedict surprised many with his valuable social teaching. He was called the “green pope” because of his advocacy of responsible stewardship of the environment. Benedict denounced predatory capitalism and – in the wake of the global financial collapse – he suggested valuable structural reforms for global capitalism, a system he saw as especially failing the needs of the poor. However, his drumbeat of criticism of homosexuality as intrinsically evil and his constant references to abortion tended to drown out his social message.