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Cardinal Ratzinger: A Profile

TUESDAY 13th May 2003
To some, he is the Catholic Church's intellectual salvation during a time of confusion and compromise. To others, he is an intimidating "Enforcer", punishing liberal thinkers, and keeping the Church in the Middle Ages. Certainly, in the world's largest Christian community the Pope's prefect of doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, cannot be overlooked.

Against dissent

While many theologians strive for a Catholic Church that is more open and in touch with the world around it, Ratzinger's mission is to stamp out dissent, and curb the "wild excesses" of this more tolerant era.

He wields the tools of his office with steely efficiency. By influencing diocese budgets, bishops' transfers and even excommunications, what an opponent calls "symbolic violence", Ratzinger has clamped down on the more radical contingent of the Church.

He has even claimed the prime position of the Church of Rome over other Christian Churches. Although he has apologised for this, he has never been so contrite about excluding liberation theologians, more progressive priests or those in favour of the ordination of women.

Charming

Personally charming, quick-witted and fluent in four languages, the Cardinal is a convincing orator. Jesuit Father Thomas Reese calls him "a delightful dialogue partner", but adds that most of the Cardinal's fellow clergy would be too worried about the prospect of excommunication to enjoy talking to him.

When Ratzinger served the Second Vatican Council for three years from 1962, he supported reform. His own background, however, perhaps sheds light on his need for a Church that stands firm against the currents of change and political shifts.

Schooled in the Nazis' power of rhetoric during his childhood in Bavaria, Ratzinger later deserted the German Army during World War II, only to be sent to a POW camp when the Allies reached his hometown.

Later, as an eminent theologian lecturing at Germany's premier faculties, he was horrified by the Marxist ideologies that punctuated campus small talk in the late 1960s.

"Papal fundamentalism"

Since then, Ratzinger has pursued doctrine that can endure, independent of cultural or social trends. He argues that only with a completely separate values system can the Church offer individual freedom. His critics call this "papal fundamentalism", but Ratzinger is unflappable in his personal theology.

The Cardinal claims that "everything falls apart without truth". Whether his noble aims justify his tactics is just one of the issues challenging the Catholic Church today.