This article was originally published in Commonweal on November 15, 1985.
WHEN NORMAL CHANNELS of communication and control fail, try the mass media. This is the strategy Cardinal Ratzinger has followed in this book-length interview (which he has reviewed and approved). It is hard to think of any other explanation for why the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, successor to Grand Inquisitors, second only to the pope, has unburdened himself at great and uninhibited length to a popular journalist.
This explanation fits with what the cardinal says regarding the institutional weakness of his position. He notes, for example, that when he was Archbishop of Munich he presided over a large and well-financed ecclesiastical bureaucracy, while his present staff is small, over-worked, and underpaid (the same, by the way, holds for the Curia as a whole). More generally, Rome has lost the support it may once have had from non-ecclesiastical establishments. Even within the church, the press and the academy are arrayed against it. They are swayed, Ratzinger believes, by the culturally decisive class in Western countries: the affluent, educated, liberal bourgeoisie (which an American, following Daniel Bell, might call the “new class”).
The cardinal regards this class as the producer, product, and victim of the present late stage of free-market capitalism (unlike American neo-conservatives, his anti-Marxism does not lead him to be pro-capitalist). Western societies have lapsed into a hedonistic consumerism, destructive of both nature and tradition, ending in aimlessness. Many try to compensate for the vacuum of meaning in their lives by psychological therapies, Eastern spiritualities, and fashionable neo-Marxisms. Catholic “progressives” (Ratzinger dislikes the term) accommodate to these developments in an effort to make the faith attractive and relevant, but in the process betray both Christianity and humanity. Morality is relativized, the clergy and religious are in disarray, questionable forms of feminism flourish, the authority of Scripture and doctrine erodes, and the very christological foundations of the faith are undermined by revisionist interpretations. So pervasive is the malady that traditionalist reactions such as that of Archbishop Lefebvre are understandable. They are in their way as bad at the primary disease, but in present circumstances less dangerous.
Ratzinger’s analysis of liberation theologies is representative of his wider critique. Contrary to the self-image they try to project, they do not grow out of grass-roots struggles against oppression, but are culturally-imperialistic European and North American exports promoted in the third world by Westernized intellectuals. The fight of these intellectuals against sinful social structures may at times be personally costly for them, but it also brings far more press coverage (and, if successful, far more power) than does the lonely battle against sin in the heart. (It is on the doctrine of sin that Ratzinger would like to work if he had a chance to return to scholarship.)