No Prophet In His Own Land: Reflections on Benedict XVI

The election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the throne of Peter has elicited a response of joy from all the faithful who love Christ and His Church. A man of outstanding talents, he has proved to be an unwavering servant of the Lord and has accepted the burden of the papacy with humility and courage, putting all his trust in God.

Not surprising—though still sad—is the response given by many of his compatriots. One would have hoped that their response would mirror that of the Polish people when Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, if only for purely nationalistic reasons. Nothing of the sort happened: “No one is a prophet in his own country” sadly applies in this case. The cool response of many Germans, and the outspoken antagonism of others, speak volumes for the state of Catholicism in the country that gave us Luther.

As I said, I was grieved but not surprised. Some 20 years ago, a historian approached me when I was vacationing in southern Germany. He knew that, at my request, my husband had written a 5,000-page memoir and that it was unpublished. I had previously informed the historian that, in the memoir, my husband had detailed his own fight against Nazism. He asked me for permission to edit the parts of the manuscript referring to this topic. A historical foundation agreed to finance it and guaranteed its publication. I gave him permission.

It occurred to me that a preface from Cardinal Ratzinger would enhance the value of the document. For this purpose, I flew to Rome in June 1984 and was granted a private audience with His Eminence. I found him warm, extremely gracious, and a friendly prince of the Church, and encouraged by his kindness, I dared to express my wish. He immediately granted my request on one condition: He would need the manuscript at least six months before publication. Because of his extremely heavy schedule, he could only commit himself if he were given plenty of time. Of course, I promised that he would get the manuscript on time.

Because of various mishaps, the editing work took much longer than expected and it was some ten years later that the work was nearing completion. I immediately reminded the editor to send His Eminence the manuscript so he could write the preface. To my shame and dismay, he wrote back to tell me the publisher had informed him that a preface from Cardinal Ratzinger would harm sales of the book in Germany. For this reason, the request I’d made should be shelved. The editor wrote to the cardinal and invented some shabby excuse.

This piece of information said much about the state of the Catholic Church in Germany. When, as a very young theologian, Ratzinger became interested in the liberal ideas rampant at the time, Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne appointed him as peritus during Vatican II. Brilliant as Ratzinger was, he certainly made his mark. This was going to be the beginning of a remarkable career.

As His Eminence relates in his autobiography, Milestones (Ignatius, 1997), after Vatican II, he became conscious of the poison contained in some innovative theological ideas that were spreading like wildfire. Once in Bamberg in 1966, he gave a talk in which he articulated his concerns. Afterward, Julius Cardinal Dopfner expressed “his surprise at the conservative streak he thought he detected.” Was he not recanting positions he had previously defended?

Having perceived the dead alleys into which some of the theses he’d previously endorsed were leading, the still-young theologian didn’t hesitate to change course. From this moment on, his popularity declined. Germany has had some very “liberal” bishops, two of whom were later given the red hat: Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Bishop Walter Kasper of Rottenberg-Stuttgart, both of whom enjoyed great popularity in their country. The former was well-known for allowing diocesan-funded counseling centers to give pregnant women certificates to receive abortions. According to German law, abortion couldn’t be refused to any woman who had received counseling from her church or social service. Catholic counselors were, of course, supposed to persuade them to keep their child. But if they failed, they had, nevertheless, to grant a practice at odds with the fifth commandment and the traditional teaching of the Church. At first, Lehmann resisted halting the practice, but when John Paul II ordered him to obey, he finally did so. His popularity in Germany remains great; for years, he allowed divorced Catholics remarried outside the Church to receive Holy Communion.

Cardinal Ratzinger was at odds with both Lehmann and Kasper on several issues. Had one of the two been elected pope, the response in Germany would have been enthusiastic. After all, these two princes of the Church were sensitive to the “needs” of their sheep.

The German press was hardly favorable to the courageous stand of Cardinal Ratzinger on these same key is-sues. But now that he has become Benedict XVI, their opposition to one who is only doing his duty by defending the perennial teaching of the Holy Church is overt.

The news media revel in abusing him: He’s authoritarian; he’s a narrow traditionalist; he’s a fundamentalist; he’s opposed to the reforms advocated by Vatican II (as interpreted by extreme liberals, that is). Their attacks will likely increase in volume with each month of his pontificate.

One may predict that every move that he’ll make to appoint faithful cardinals and bishops, to reform the deplorable abuses of the liturgy, to curb and eliminate immorality in the seminaries, to challenge so-called Catholic universities to follow the dictates of Dominus Iesus, will be sharply criticized: In a word, Benedict XVI will be crucified. No doubt he knew it, and in accepting the cross of the papacy (which he didn’t strive for, as op-posed to some of his predecessors in the Renaissance) he certainly spoke the words “Fiat voluntas tua” and put his trust in God.

Is he truly the ruthless and heartless dogmatist pictured by the press? In the fall of 1988, John Richard Neuhaus (a Lutheran pastor at that time) invited Cardinal Ratzinger to give a talk in his church on Lexington Avenue in New York. I was privileged to attend with a young friend of mine, Mary Healy. The place was packed. His Eminence started speaking, with the audience listening with keen interest. All of a sudden, pandemonium broke loose: A group of homosexual activists who had occupied the galleries started shouting, screaming, and hurling insults at the cardinal.

My Latin blood started boiling. Before I knew it, I got up and said at the top of my voice, “Shame on you!” The police were called and they forced the dissidents to leave the Church; they went outside and continued screaming. The cardinal stood quietly on the podium with a grieved but gentle expression on his face. I could not help but have the feeling that he was praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Peace was finally reestablished, and once again, His Eminence proceeded with his text as if nothing had happened. He was clearly deeply recollected. But it was not the end of this ugly affair. After some ten minutes, other protesters seated in the back of the Church started spit-ting their gall once again and giving expression to their unholy rage. The same scenario was repeated; but this time, the police were nearby, and the speaker could complete his talk.

His attitude throughout was admirable—peaceful, calm, loving, no bitterness, no resentment. He accepted their insults and, in doing so, gave testimony to the teaching of Christ: Love those who hate you.

The choice of his name—Benedict—is deeply meaningful, and this for several reasons. First of all, St. Benedict was the founder of Western monasticism. His help is badly needed to re-Christianize the European continent menaced by general apostasy. Moreover, Benedict XV, who sat on the papal throne during the whole of the First World War, tried desperately in collaboration with Karl, the saintly emperor of Austria, to bring an end to the abominable and meaningless conflict. His efforts were tragically thwarted by Eric Ludendorff, whose insane hatred of Christianity was well-known. True peace—peace based on truth, in a world poisoned by hatred—is clearly one of the aims of this new pontificate.

Last but not least, Benedict XVI has a profound understanding of the importance of the liturgy in Catholic life. He refers repeatedly to the deep impression that the liturgy of the Church and Gregorian chant have made on him since childhood. He knows well the importance of authentic Catholic culture in the lives of the faithful. As he wrote in Milestones: “The prohibition of the missal that was now decreed, a missal that had known continuous growth over the centuries…introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic…. I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy.” And later, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”

Can we hope that Benedict XVI will restore to the faithful, hungering for divine food, the splendor of the divine service from which they have been deprived for so long? Lex orandi, lex credendi.

This is the pontiff whom the Holy Ghost has inspired weak and imperfect men to give us as the representative of Christ on this earth. A Te Deum and a Magnificat are called for.


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...