The Year of Two Popes

How Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the shoes of John Paul II—and what it means for the Catholic Church

Though younger than Wojtyla, Ratzinger at the time was the more prominent of the two. Wojtyla was a charismatic prelate immersed in the Church's struggles in cut-off Poland; Ratzinger was a well-known theologian across Europe. After Vatican II, Ratzinger had taught at the University of Tübingen, a kind of Institute for Advanced Study of Catholic thought. He had been a founder of Concilium, the most prominent journal to emerge from Vatican II, and then of Communio, a more conservative journal established out of disaffection with an overly progressive reading of the council's texts—particularly Gaudium et Spes, Wojtyla's key text, whose openness to modernity Ratzinger judged "unsatisfactory." Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity had become a standard work in Catholic seminaries. "I read it in my first year as a monk, and it was not about liberal or conservative, Vatican II or the reaction to Vatican II," my friend Luke told me, fetching a battered paperback copy from a high shelf in his cell as if to evoke a more innocent time. "It was about belief itself. I thought, 'Now, here is a writer who knows what it is to be a Christian—who knows what it might mean to me personally to commit my life to Christ and the Church.'"

Ratzinger's support of Wojtyla for pope, then, was no simple act of deference to a cardinal older and more magnetic than himself. It was a placing of his gifts in the service of a man who was in many ways still a question mark—but who would emerge in the short term as greater than he.

There was no surprise in John Paul's appointment of Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1981. John Paul had made clear that his pontificate would seek to right the listing ship of the Church by putting forth a conservative interpretation of Vatican II, and in Ratzinger he had both a top theologian and one even more conservative than himself.

It was John Paul's practice to choose bishops according to orthodoxy, pure and simple, even if it meant disregarding more worldly indicators of talent or achievement. Matthew, the scholar, believes that in other circumstances John Paul's suspicion of strong thinkers might have led him to pass over Ratzinger. "What if Döpfner [Cardinal Julius Döpfner, Ratzinger's predecessor in Munich] hadn't died young, allowing for Ratzinger to be named archbishop by Paul VI?" Matthew said. "What if Ratzinger was still an academic theologian when John Paul was elected pope? Would John Paul have ever made him an archbishop? I doubt it." Once Ratzinger was in Rome, though, "John Paul could see that he knew more than anybody else, and so made heavy use of him," Matthew told me. "Then, because of the poor quality of John Paul's episcopal appointments, Ratzinger stood out even more among the bishops, and John Paul leaned on him even more."

For the next two decades he and John Paul represented the Vatican to the world from their offices on opposite sides of St. Peter's. While John Paul received bishops or drafted encyclicals from his desk in the papal apartments, Ratzinger supervised the CDF's thirty experts from behind the gated iron fence of the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio, scrutinizing forthcoming Vatican documents as well as the work of suspect theologians. Sometimes the prefect would correct the pope's theology; when John Paul seemed to declare the restriction of the ordained ministry to men an infallible teaching, for example, Ratzinger, though no supporter of a more open priesthood, made clear that this was not permissible.

Their Tuesday lunches and Friday-evening meetings became fixed points in the turning world of John Paul's pontificate. Describing these appointments a few years ago, Ratzinger made himself and John Paul seem relative equals, though in different roles. "We shake hands, sit down together at the table, and have a little personal chat that doesn't have anything to do with theology per se. Normally I then present what I want to say, the Pope asks whatever questions he has, and this starts another conversation going." He dispelled the idea that they were in lockstep; there were differences—about ecumenism, for example—within an "inner harmony." At the same time, he dismissed the notion that he was the architect of John Paul's thought: "I've had a say in the Pope's official teaching and contributed something that has also given shape to the pontificate. But the Pope has very much his own course."

Over time the differences between the two men became clearer. They could be seen as complementary types. Wojtyla was an actor, Ratzinger a writer. Wojtyla seemed born to wear white, whereas Ratzinger seemed most natural in a black cassock and beret. John Paul traveled the world on a never-ending pilgrimage; Ratzinger made a ritual of the daily walk from his office to his apartment in a drab modern building in the cramped and tourist-ridden neighborhood just outside the Vatican walls, literally in the shadow of the papal apartments. He would stop en route to buy light bulbs, feed stray cats, pose for a snapshot with some tourists, or browse in the window of the Ancora bookshop, where new works of theology were displayed alongside treacly portraits of John Paul. Once home he would drink a glass of Orangina and settle at the piano, playing Mozart from six-thirty to seven each evening, and then read or write into the night.

If John Paul's outlook was defined by his nationality, Ratzinger's is best understood through his vocation. He is a theologian the way John Paul was a Pole: wholly, intensely, at once proud and embattled. Whereas John Paul, formed by Polish nationalism, sought truth in history—the dying arc of communism, the end of the second millennium—Ratzinger sees the challenges of the Church as finally theological, not historical. In his view, human society is always changing; civilization is entropically prone to decline. It is the task of theologians to make the substance of the Catholic faith clear amid this continual change, not to make it relevant to their place and time. This explains his distaste for such innovators as the liberation theologians of Latin America.

Inspired by the providential strain of Polish Catholicism, John Paul read back into his earlier life the signs that he was destined to become pope and to lead the Church into the third millennium. Ratzinger, in contrast, is nearly an existentialist in his view of the Christian life as a series of decisive actions for or against God. His life, his books, and his tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith all bear the imprint of such an outlook. A policeman's son, he moved to the head of the class through devotion to his studies. A gifted young German in a generation thinned by war, he grew up expecting to serve as a leader in the Church in his country. Educated in the shadow of great theologians—the Protestants Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann, the Catholics Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar—he came of age convinced that theologians could guide the Church and change the world, and the theologically rich work of Vatican II emboldened him further. Once established as a theologian, he emphatically asserted his position against those who sought to blunt the sharp edges of Christian truth with the idea that the progressive forces of history were on their side.

He acted decisively, finally, through his service to John Paul. He was John the Baptist to the older man, making straight the path for the arrival of a figure whose sandal, as Scripture would have it, he was not fit to untie.

At the far end of John Paul's long pontificate the pattern was turned around. Now John Paul, for all he had done, was bent double by illness, while Ratzinger, though past retirement age, was invigorated by the challenges placed before him. Now John Paul became the lesser man and Ratzinger the greater.

III. Not So Fast, Wojtyla

In February of 2000 Ratzinger left Rome to spend a long weekend at the Benedictine abbey at Montecassino, a ninety-minute drive away. The abbey, which dates back to the sixth century, is the motherhouse of the order of monks founded by Saint Benedict, the architect of Western monasticism. During World War II the Nazis—turning the monastery's prestige and hilltop location into strategic advantages—made Montecassino into a staging ground, but the Allies bombed it anyway, almost destroying the complex.

This double history of exaltation and destruction, of divinity and depravity, makes Montecassino a formidable place for reflection. Ratzinger's objective on this visit was something other than peace and quiet, however. A journalist was with him. At Montecassino in 2000 Ratzinger would sit for a book-length interview, talking for three days straight.

Two previous books of interviews had defined him as both John Paul's brilliant sidekick and a man with his own distinctive voice. With its bright-red cover and tabloid-style title, The Ratzinger Report (1985) suggested that some intrepid journalist had found a breach in the Inquisitor's silence. In fact Ratzinger had carefully vetted the text (written by the Italian essayist Vittorio Messori), and it seemed crafted to counter the image of him as a fearsome reactionary. Certainly he was dogmatic: "It is not the Christians who oppose the world," he declared, "but rather the world which opposes itself to them when the truth about God, about Christ and about man is proclaimed." But his account of the conflict between Catholicism and modernity was eloquent and forward-looking. He was no throwback but a "realist" who simply thought that the reforms that followed Vatican II went beyond what the council fathers had called for. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not a new Inquisition but an institution charged with "the defense of right belief." As prefect he was not an enforcer so much as a kind of physician treating "the pathology of faith."

The Ratzinger Report was a big seller in Italy, and Ratzinger followed with Salt of the Earth (1997), the best expression of his point of view. This time the interviewer was the German journalist Peter Seewald, and Ratzinger's voice, even in translation, sounds out across the pages: at once gentle and forceful, now lofty in its impersonality, now candid, even intimate. The book made Ratzinger, and by extension the Vatican, seem surprisingly humble and open to criticism.

Now, at Montecassino, Ratzinger sat down with Seewald again. He said little about doctrine in the sense of the formulae of faith. Rather, he spoke in plain language about what Catholics believe. "When it comes down to it, everyone has to undergo his own Exodus," he explained. "He not only has to leave the place that nurtured him and become independent, but has to come out of his own reserved self. He must leave himself behind, transcend his own limits; only then will he reach the Promised Land, so to speak—

In the previous interviews Ratzinger had cited John Paul continually and spontaneously. This time he referred to John Paul only a dozen times in three days, and rather distantly at that, calling him "the pope," "this pope," "the present pope," or "the Holy Father." At one point he even referred to John Paul's pontificate in the past tense: "It was occupied in dealing with all the basic questions of our time—and over and beyond this, it gave us a running start, a real lead." It is a startling moment. ("He really said that?" my friend John asked in astonishment.) Ratzinger's "us" no longer included Wojtyla, and John Paul's long pontificate was a thing of the past; Ratzinger was looking beyond John Paul to the Church's next stage.

John Paul was still alive and still pope, however, and as if to emphasize the point, he had made dramatic plans for 2000—plans that placed him at the center from start to finish. According to a long tradition, the fiftieth and the last years of a century are Jubilee years, in which the Church settles old debts and starts anew, urging the faithful to come to Rome on pilgrimage. Throughout his pontificate John Paul had looked forward to the Great Jubilee of 2000, seeing the advent of the third millennium as a chance for the Church to purify itself from within and at the same time to advance its standing in the world. "Everything had to get the Jubilee spin," one Vatican official told me. "It was a little much."

John Paul's schedule for the first six months of 2000 included trips to Mount Sinai, in Egypt, where in the Bible God speaks to Moses from the burning bush; to Jerusalem, where he would visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; and to Fatima, in Portugal, where, according to popular devotion, the Virgin Mary appeared in visions to three peasant children in 1917. The Fatima visit meant a great deal to him, for it was Our Lady of Fatima, he believed, who had protected him when, on her feast day in 1981, he survived a gunman's attempt on his life.

John Paul saw the Jubilee festivities as the "hermeneutical key" to his pontificate. They presented complications, however. For one thing, they threatened to overwhelm him physically. Already his hands shook and his speech was slurred—the effects of Parkinson's disease (though this illness had yet to be acknowledged)—and he was still feeling the effects of hip-replacement surgery and of the removal of a giant tumor from his abdomen. At the Vatican his secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the papal staff had found ways to cover for him: keeping meetings short, clearing blocks of time for him to rest before his trips, and delegating many decisions to the heads of the various Vatican departments, called dicasteries or congregations.

His public appearances could not be delegated, though, and the first Jubilee events weakened him to the point where his true condition could no longer be disguised. During a mass for the sick at St. Peter's in January of 2000 he was obviously one of the sick himself—his face sunk into his chest, a stream of saliva dribbling from his mouth. He was often in bed by six in the evening. Ratzinger had once cited a Scripture verse to the effect that John Paul knew what it was to be dressed by others. He knew what it was to be fed by others, too. An aide had to cut his meat for him and, taking hold of his shaking hand, guide the fork to his mouth.

The other complication of Jubilee 2000 was theological. John Paul was conservative but not cautious. Wary of innovation in others, he was himself inclined to make grand symbolic gestures whose meaning was either ambiguous or just plain confusing—

That was what happened soon after John Paul, draped in a glittering cope (a vestment so ornate as to suggest both the biblical Joseph's coat of many colors and one of Liberace's getups), opened the "holy" door of St. Peter's to signal that the Great Jubilee had begun. The pope arranged to repeat the gesture at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, one of the four basilicas on the itinerary for Jubilee pilgrims. The basilica is set in a grassy area where the apostle Paul is said to have been buried—a favorite picnic ground for Roman families. It is often used as a setting for ecumenical services, so that the Vatican can ask other Christians to join in common prayer without, in effect, giving them the keys to St. Peter's.

John Paul had invited George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to join him. The two leaders approached the holy door, each clad in cope and miter and carrying a crozier, the hooked walking stick that symbolizes the bishop's role as shepherd of the faithful. John Paul opened the door, and they strode through side by side.

John Paul would later single out the event as one that "has remained impressed upon my memory in a special way." But the episode made Cardinal Ratzinger uneasy, because strictly speaking the Catholic Church doesn't consider Anglican orders valid—meaning it doesn't consider Anglican priests priests or Anglican bishops bishops. In his view, a photo op at St. Paul's was no less significant than a high mass at St. Peter's, and a Sunday in the park with George Carey was no picnic. "Sometimes these ecumenical and inter-religious gestures were seen as suggesting something other than what was meant—and would be troubling to Ratzinger, who doesn't like ambiguity," Cardinal Avery Dulles, an American theologian, told me. "The opening of the holy door is an example of the sort of thing that makes him nervous. He would say, 'If we don't recognize Anglican orders but we treat them with all the honor of the episcopal office, then something is wrong here.'"

Presented by

Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, among other prizes.

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