The Year of Two Popes

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

A week later the CDF held a meeting to summarize its recent work for the pope. With John Paul sitting before him, Ratzinger called "special attention" to the complexities of ecumenical and inter-religious matters in the Jubilee year. He told John Paul that the belief in the "salvific uniqueness and universality of Christ and the Church" risked being obscured by "erroneous and confused ideas and opinions." In other words, the Church had to make sure to stress its own central role as the bearerof the Christian message.

Speaking from a prepared text, John Paul replied to Ratzinger, agreeing that "our ardent desire to arrive one day at full communion" with other churches "must not darken the truth that the Church of Christ is not an utopia, to be reassembled from present existing fragments with our human forces." The grim lyricism of the reply (echoing a Ratzinger gibe about "the 'laboratories' in which Utopia is distilled") suggests that it was actually written by Ratzinger—that the pope's concession to the prefect was scripted by the prefect.

"During the Jubilee, Ratzinger was counterbalancing the pope," a man long in Rome as the head of his religious order explained. "In some ways he was resisting the pope, in some ways he was restraining the pope, in some ways he was responding to an inclination of the pope to the dramatic. John Paul thought in terms of big gestures—like going to the Wailing Wall. The trouble with a gesture is that anybody can put their own interpretation on it."

My friend Matthew, the scholar, made the same point more sharply, arguing that sometimes the Vatican departments actively worked against the pope. "Some of the stuff coming out of the dicasteries actually seemed to undermine what John Paul was trying to do," he told me. "John Paul was a phenomenologist, interested in the whole range of experience. Take a look at Redemptor Hominis [his first encyclical letter]: he must use the word experience a dozen times. He talked about experience, he relied on it, he never had any inhibition about it—and yet they censored him. You could see other people correcting him, checking him." In particular Matthew saw the hand of his old colleague Ratzinger, holding tight to the pope's wrist.

March 12, 2000, the first Sunday of Lent, was the Jubilee's day of "memory and reconciliation." "Let us forgive and ask forgiveness! … We cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially in the second millennium," John Paul declared from behind the lectern at St. Peter's. Then, one by one, seven archbishops rose, lit candles, and asked forgiveness for offenses against other Christians, against Jews, against native peoples, against women, against "the little ones." As the prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger rose and asked forgiveness for offenses against truth. At his behest, the language of all these pleas had been crafted so that it was clear the cardinals were seeking pardon from God, not from special-interest groups, and confessing the sins of Catholics, not of the Church. Nevertheless, the moment was dramatic, even by John Paul's standards. The New York Times called it an "unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church."

Later the same day John Paul resumed writing his spiritual testament, which he had been composing in installments since 1979. In it he mused on death, made provision for his burial (which he envisioned in Kraków, not Rome), and described his gratitude for the "gifts" in his life: Vatican II, the end of communism, the failure of the assassination attempt, and a long papacy. He likened himself to Simeon in Luke's gospel, an old man who sees the child Jesus and declares that he is now ready to die.

Joseph Ratzinger, too, was surveying his life and times. Before coming to Rome to run the CDF he had gained John Paul's assurance that he would be free to keep writing as a theologian, and he reserved the early mornings for "personal work" in his apartment before crossing the square to the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio.

Now Ratzinger bore down on an essay of real consequence: a preface to a new edition of Introduction to Christianity, his most admired book. Based on a series of lectures he gave to large audiences at Tübingen in 1967, the book is evidence that he is no stranger to unbelief—that despite his strict Catholic upbringing and constant faith he knows unbelief from the inside. In long, learned chapters he marries the searching orthodoxy of the great preconciliar theologians to a modern existentialist's concern for what can be called the situation of the unbeliever. Belief in our time, he proposes, is formed in the crucible of unbelief, and unbelief is formed in defiance of the yearning to believe. The unbeliever is the believer's secret sharer, and vice versa.

Ratzinger prefaced the new edition by telling a story about the course Christianity had taken since the book came out. He focused on two dates: 1989 and 1968. Upon the fall of communism, in 1989, he argued, Christianity had "failed to make itself heard as an epoch-making alternative." It failed, he suggested, because it had failed earlier, in 1968, when it became captive to Marxist ideas of revolution, which obscured the truth of the Gospel. This was clearest in liberation theology, which promised to free the poor peoples of Latin America but instead left them with no true alternative to dictatorships, only the theories of Marx-addled professors.

Ratzinger went on to describe the ill effects of Western society's loss of faith. Cut off from God, he warned, humanity flounders, even though at first "everything apparently goes on as before." Technology makes the human person into an object rather than a subject. Crime flourishes in a climate of relativism and self-aggrandizement. In time civilization comes apart. "Without God," he declared, "nothing is safe."

In many ways Ratzinger was making a standard argument for religion as the basis for civil society. But the preface's difference in tone from the book it introduced was striking. Gone was Ratzinger's solicitude toward the unbeliever. Unbelief, once the shadow side of the human yearning for God, was now an outgrowth of noxious social forces. Where John Paul saw the forty years just past as a time of gifts, Ratzinger saw them as a time of despair. Where John Paul was soldiering on despite his ailments, Ratzinger in his study was a professor grown impatient with his students' lack of understanding.

That September Ratzinger held a press conference to release the document Dominus Iesus, which the CDF had begun to prepare after his warning to John Paul. It concerned the Catholic Church's relations with other religions, and in approach it was graceless. Contrary to Vatican procedure, the CDF pushed it through without giving key curial officials the chance to sign off on it, and Ratzinger himself signed the document on August 6, as Rome was emptying for the summer holidays. In a sharp departure from Vatican II, it treated other Christian denominations as essentially equivalent to non-Christian religions—implying that Christian faith that is not Catholic is not Christian faith at all. And it used wounding words, declaring that the other churches and other religions—the religions whose leaders John Paul was going out of his way to greet during the Jubilee—were "in a gravely deficient situation."

"We all had a lot of explaining to do," Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, told me. "If Cardinal Cassidy's office [the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] had seen it, they never would have let it go out. Cassidy would have gone to John Paul and said, 'You can't do this.'"

In particular, Bishop Walter Kasper, then the secretary of the council, challenged the document. The day after the Vatican announced that Kasper was to be elevated to cardinal—a sign that he was likely to succeed Cardinal Cassidy as the head of the office—an Austrian magazine published an interview in which Kasper found fault with the document's "doctrinaire" tone and its "clumsy and ambiguous" treatment of other Christian bodies. The prefect of the CDF was not pleased. "The closest I've ever seen Ratzinger to pissed was over Kasper's response to Dominus Iesus," Mark told me. "We were in his office, just the two of us, and it came up. Now, 'pissed' for Ratzinger—I'm not sure 'pissed' is quite the word. 'Pissed' for him is a raised eyebrow and a roll of the eyes. But he was pissed. The eyebrow was raised. The eyes rolled. 'That is nonsense,' he said—and that, from him, is the equivalent of an outright condemnation from somebody else."

If Ratzinger's intention with Dominus Iesus was to wave a red flag, he was successful. From its title onward it served to cast aspersions on the Jubilee road show, as some in the Vatican called it, and to make Ratzinger more prominent than ever as John Paul's alter ego, a cleric who was more Catholic than the pope.

IV. Senior Moments

Seventy-five is the retirement age for Catholic bishops, and as Ratzinger's seventy-fifth birthday drew near—April 16, 2002—the word from Rome was that retirement would suit him just fine. In a letter to John Paul (who was about to turn eighty-two) he offered his resignation as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger's resignation was not accepted, however. It was no time for the doctrinal prefect to step down. The papal schedule for 2002 rivaled that for 2000—as if, having survived the Jubilee road show, John Paul was determined to extend its run indefinitely. There were the canonizations of nine saints, ranging from Juan Diego of Mexico to the little-known Pauline of the Heart of Jesus in Agony, keeping up a pace of saint-making that had led Ratzinger to suggest that John Paul was canonizing profligately. There were three foreign trips, including a triumphal return to Poland. The scandal of priestly sexual abuse in the United States had reached a point of crisis. And John Paul's Parkinson's disease had become common knowledge.

Meanwhile, another Vatican official was ailing. This was Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a native of Benin and the dean of the College of Cardinals, a largely honorific role with one definite responsibility: that of directing the cardinals during a papal conclave.

Gantin would turn eighty in May of 2002. As his birthday approached, he made known his wish to resign as dean and go back to Benin. He had sought to resign twice before. This time his resignation was accepted. In late November the six cardinal bishops (one of three groups within the College of Cardinals) met to elect a new dean from among themselves. They chose Ratzinger, who had been the vice-dean. John Paul affirmed the choice.

In some respects it was hardly unusual that the vice-dean would succeed the dean. But several people in Rome told me that the election of Ratzinger rather than Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, resolved a conflict among the cardinals in ways that came to bear directly on the conclave.

John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has called Gantin the "inadvertent architect" of Ratzinger's election as pope, and characterized the change in deans as "perhaps the single most decisive moment in the chain of events" leading up to the conclave. He expanded on these remarks over lunch at his favorite ristorante in the Borgo Pio. As an ashtray was brought out, in defiance of Italian law but in deference to his taste for Nat Sherman cigarettes, he explained the situation. "With Gantin stepping down, there are only two logical choices for the new dean"—Ratzinger and Sodano, who is seven months younger. "But too many people at that level dislike Sodano. The feeling is that he is what the Italians call gonfiato—he has an inflated sense of himself. So it would have to be Ratzinger. Certainly Ratzinger would have been aware of this—and with a conclave in the offing, he would have seen the implications of getting elected dean sooner rather than later."

Did Gantin step aside so that Ratzinger could run the conclave? My conversation partners in Rome would say only that Ratzinger and Gantin have been allies ever since they were elevated to cardinal on the same day in 1977. "That Gantin should be succeeded by Ratzinger is something you should give real attention," I was told by a Vatican official who has worked with both men. "Here are two men from backgrounds as different as can be imagined: one a European to the core, the other said to be descended from African tribal royalty. Each is called to Rome by John Paul and serves loyally for twenty years as the head of a congregation—the two that you hear called the 'major' congregations. Each asks to retire and return to his homeland several times. And when, on his third request, Gantin's resignation is accepted, Ratzinger, with whom he had worked so closely, is elected to succeed him. Surely there is something to this."

Ratzinger was a natural next dean: a senior man, under eighty, and relatively healthy. His election put him front and center in the planning for the Church's future. It put him in place as the celebrant of the funeral mass for John Paul when the time came. It gave him responsibility for eulogizing the dead pope and setting John Paul's long pontificate in context for future generations.

Election as dean also enabled him to take a strong position on one of his key issues: the priority of the Church's doctrinal or teaching dimension—represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Bishops—over the political dimension, represented by the Secretariat of State. This distinction, which might seem at first glance to be religious hairsplitting, is fundamental around the Vatican. "For Cardinal Ratzinger it's a theological issue," my friend John, the curial official who has had many dealings with Ratzinger, told me. "As a living entity, acting in the world and in history, the Vatican has to have a state which has diplomatic relations with other states. Cardinal Ratzinger doesn't question this. But it's his view that the Vatican state isn't part of the essential nature of the Church as it has come down to us from the apostles. It's not biblical, and theologically its relationship to the Church as a whole is somewhat ambiguous."

We were speaking on the Monday after John Paul's funeral, two weeks before the conclave. John explained that the distinction between the Vatican's congregations, such as the CDF, and its other departments was at the root of a long struggle between Ratzinger and Sodano—a struggle that would most likely be played out in the conclave. "The people over at State are terrified that he will wind up pope," he told me, speaking of Ratzinger. "He thinks they're perfectly entitled to do their job, which is to vigorously represent and uphold the Vatican's diplomatic presence. But to represent the Church as a whole? To lead the Church? Not a chance."

Ratzinger himself had come to be recognized as a leader of the Church, and not just at the Vatican. Though his public image was unappealing, he was the only cardinal most ordinary Catholics would recognize. His pronouncements—about same-sex marriage, the United Nations, Catholic politicians, or Turkey's bid to join the European Union—were reported around the world as the statements of the pope's second-in-command. A series of photographs of the two men suggests a shift in their relationship as John Paul's health went into steep decline. At the altar of St. Peter's on Easter in 2002 prefect and pope are collaborators, bowing their heads together over the bread and wine. Five months later Ratzinger looks on fretfully as John Paul, propped up by a lectern, seems about to topple over under the weight of the miter on his head. By early 2004 Ratzinger is caring for John Paul, looking out for him: as he proffers a giant crucifix for John Paul to kiss, he might be extending to the bent and wrinkled pope a means of support.

My friend John remembers clearly the first time he thought that Ratzinger would become pope. It was during a grand mass on October 16, 2003, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul's election. The mass was held in St. Peter's Square at twilight, so as to recall the evening in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the central loggia of the basilica and introduced himself to the world as the new pope "from a far country." But the effect was to suggest the twilight of his pontificate. After several hundred cardinals and archbishops strode in procession to an altar outside St. Peter's, John Paul was rolled out on a special conveyance, a cross between a throne and a wheelchair that was now his principal means of getting around in public. Then Ratzinger gave a stirring encomium to his great co-worker. He likened John Paul to Paul the apostle, who also had "tirelessly traveled the world" and had suffered bodily at the end of his life. It was then, as the standing Ratzinger addressed John Paul, who was slumped in his chair, that John felt Ratzinger would be the one. "I can't give you a reason why I thought this. I just remember sitting there, watching and listening to him, and suddenly it hit me: He could be pope. He may be pope."

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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