I’ve written my share of critical appraisals of Joseph Ratzinger, both when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and during his surprisingly fitful years as Benedict XVI. His rigidity, theologically and even physically, seemed almost stereotypically Germanic, as I suppose did his widely acknowledged analytical brilliance. His resignation from the papacy was startling, but also revealed a measure of genuine humility and an abiding trust in God’s promises to his church. In many ways, he seemed the very model of a certain kind of starchy but fiercely dedicated priest-theologian and churchman. You didn’t have to agree with him to admire his devotion or respect his considerable talents as a theologian, thinker, and writer.

James Carroll, the novelist and frequent commentator on things Catholic (his most recent book is Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age), thinks Ratzinger a frankly sinister figure. Last Testament, a series of interviews the pope emeritus gave to the German journalist Peter Seewald, confirmed Carroll in his belief in Ratzinger’s pernicious “ethical detachment,” “astounding emotional and religious indifference,” “a moral perception so partial as to be immoral, with drastic consequences for the church.”

Carroll’s critique of Ratzinger’s theological conservatism is predictable enough. The soft-spoken prelate’s instincts were “always to defend, never to reexamine, much less regret” his own actions or church teachings. As head of the CDF, Ratzinger was a notorious scold of those unquestionable goods: liberal Catholicism, liberation theology, women religious, feminism, and any rethinking of Catholic sexual morality. Carroll complains that Ratzinger was so retrograde he even questioned John Paul II’s interfaith efforts, despite the fact that some of these seemed—and not only to Ratzinger—to have more theatrical than theological value. Worse, Carroll writes, was Ratzinger’s cautious approach to getting rid of priests who had abused children. Carroll dismisses Ratzinger’s concerns about procedural justice for the accused more or less out of hand. And yet the last time I looked, a presumption of innocence was still a liberal value.

Ratzinger was conscripted into the German army at seventeen near the end of World War II. One wonders how any of us should be judged by the choices made for us when we were seventeen. But in Carroll’s eyes, Ratzinger’s time in the German military places a special responsibility on him to condemn the church’s failures during the Holocaust. It is true that like other Germans of his generation, Ratzinger has been reluctant to do that, but the church’s failures in that regard, though real and deplorable, are easily caricatured. Carroll admits that having lived through the war as a teenager, the future pope was understandably “branded by fear,” but thinks that is no excuse for his theological timidity and alleged moral myopia. Those experiences and that fear, Carroll writes, made Ratzinger into a tenacious opponent of change in the church, compelling him to “ruthlessly” protect its boundaries. Hence the cliché: “God’s Rottweiler.”   

In short, Ratzinger is judged to have lived his “life at such a level of abstraction, ever shoring up the bulwarks of institution and doctrine, that he consistently misses the real meaning of the human experiences that challenge both.” But the challenge “human experiences” present to institutions and doctrines is never straightforward. The embrace of some human experiences will build up the church; others are likely to tear it down. Rarely is it immediately clear which is which. “Human experiences,” after all, are what have created institutions and doctrines in the first place, and history tells us that humans are easily cast adrift without them. In the light of the recent presidential election, shoring up institutions and “doctrines” would seem to be just as important as resolving the more personal conflicts Carroll touches on.   

How, not whether, “human experience” is to be weighed against the demands of supposedly calcified “doctrine” is the more difficult question, and one I suspect Ratzinger has thought about as deeply as Carroll. Religions don’t just respond to human needs; they make demands. Being held morally accountable is also a human need, and the demands made on us as parents, workers, citizens, and Catholics—or even bishops—are often the most humanizing of all.

As a gifted writer himself—and a theologically literate one—Carroll might be expected to appreciate Ratzinger’s gifts as a theological writer of uncommon power and lucidity. Yet that aspect of Ratzinger’s “moral perception” is ignored. Rather, what is most striking about Carroll’s depiction of Ratzinger and the church is how it is pitched to satisfy every prejudice his largely liberal, secular New Yorker readership presumably has about Catholicism. The sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests is of course highlighted, but without nuance or context. The recent revelations about sexual abuse in prestigious prep schools, at the BBC, or in every conceivable athletic coaching venue would only clutter up the formulaic indictment. Nor does Carroll try to complicate the picture of what is at stake in internal church disputes. Nowhere does he suggest that, despite the church’s undoubted failings, defenders of tradition like Ratzinger might actually feel a responsibility to protect and hand on a faith millions of men and women around the globe cherish. For Carroll and his audience, the institutional church is simply an authoritarian bogeyman, an enduring source of anti-Semitism, a corrupt patriarchy, an anachronism. Except for Pope Francis, of course. In the ascendency of Francis, Carroll believes, we see that “style and substance are inseparable.” Francis’s “unrelentingly positive spirit,” rather than his dour predecessor’s admonitions, will save the church. The possibility that we might need both admonitions and a positive spirit doesn’t seem to have occurred to Carroll.    

I do agree with Carroll about one thing. Style and substance are inseparable, and in his pinched and ungenerous portrait of Ratzinger, there is about as much “positive spirit” as there is in a condemnation handed down by the CDF.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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