A journal of academic theology

June 2005 editorial

As a long-time student of Vatican protocol, I had been regularly updating my database regarding the papal elector cardinals and reviewing procedures established by Universi dominici gregis(1996) so that, following the death of the reigning pope, I could assist local TV anchors, journalists, and radio commentators who felt intimidated by the complexities of the conclave. As fate would have it, during the actual voting for the new pontiff, I ended up in a nearby hospital for a week’s treatment. Although unable to respond to media requests, I did have the unusual luxury of watching from my bed the almost non-stop TV coverage of the events in Rome. When Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s, after the white smoke and the tolling bells, to announce: “Habemus papam,” I gasped when he pronounced the baptismal name “Iosephum.” The family name that followed would surely be “Ratzinger.” All my long-range prognostications about the papabili had proven to be far wide off the mark.

My mind at once turned back to my graduate student days in Tübingen, Germany, where Professor Ratzinger taught me systematic theology from 1966 to 1968. His progressive theology, articulated at the university and earlier at Vatican II, inspired his students. In those days, he was collaborating closely with his colleague Hans Küng, co-publishing a theological series entitled Ökumenische Forschungen. The two of them would meet every Thursday evening at their Stammtisch at the Museum Restaurant for an evening of discussion and camaraderie. Then in 1968, in the wake of turbulent student strikes and civil disobedience in Germany and France, Ratzinger underwent an intellectual conversion that drew him politically and ecclesiastically to conservative positions. (I described his paradigm shift in 1981 in an article published in Concilium entitled “Joseph Ratzinger as Ecclesiologist and Pastor.”) Shortly thereafter, when the opportunity presented itself, he gladly relocated from the confessionally mixed setting of Tübingen to the Bavarian Catholic campus of the University of Regensburg where his priest brother Georg conducted the Regensburger Domchor.

In the ensuing years when I would meet Ratzinger, whether in Rome, Toronto, or elsewhere, I would remind him of the earlier Tübingen days. He would inevitably respond something like: “Ja, ja, das war lange her!” which I took to mean: “a lot of water has flown over the dam since then!”

Can a man who shifted horizons at the age of 41 do so again (in another direction) at the age of 78? Some commentators on the election are convinced that his change of ministry from prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to Roman Pontiff may occasion a shift from a relentless style to a more compassionate and flexible attitude. In these early days of media coverage we are being deluged with “opinions” from everyone from his Munich University classmate, Uta Ranke-Heinemann (Eunuchs of the Kingdom of Heaven), to his “old friend and student,” Joseph Fessio, about how he will grow in the Petrine office. Change is possible. After all, the much revered archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, underwent a dramatic change of heart because of his episcopal responsibilities. Time will tell, and Benedict XVI’s curial replacements, especially the prefect of the CDF, will be one of the early signals.

These recent events prompt some theological reflections in the light of the unprecedented media coverage. It is ironic that a country with numerous citizens opposed to mixing church and state, or mentioning God’s name in the pledge of allegiance, or tolerating the public display of the Ten Commandments, should have dedicated so much prime time to the papacy. I wonder if the coverage helped in any way to promote catechetical or evangelical sharing of Catholic Christianity. If anything it might have communicated an exaggerated view of the papal office in the Church. Although the splendid pageantry of the setting, the costumes, the vestments, the popular expression of affection and suspense, provided fine TV viewing, was it a sacramental embodiment of the Church in the modern world? The papal office came across as incarnated in such imperial trappings that it seemed remote from the simplicity of the Galilean fisherman. Several special programs on EWTN displayed in all their glory, the papal palace, the private Vatican gardens, and the splendors of Castelgondolfo, but their beauty seemed strange when juxtaposed to scenes of dire poverty elsewhere in the Church.

Many theologians, especially women theologians, have concerns about their future under the new pope. They aspire to closer dialogue. They wish to have their voice in the Church heard and understood. They hope for the return of the kind of close collaboration with the hierarchy that marked Vatican II. What is more likely to bring these dreams to fruition is not bemoaning, but a commitment to solid teaching, research, and publication articulated with pastoral sensitivity and responsibility.

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