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Pope Benedict XVI's Questionable Qualifications

Pope Benedict XVI's questionable qualifications

If Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's involvement with the Hitler Youth and his stonewalling of the pedophile priests' scandal aren't enough to disqualify him from becoming pope, what would?
By Bill Berkowitz

As comedian Bill Maher might say, NEW RULES: "If you were involved in a Nazi youth group, you can't be pope."

How many Nazi salutes did he give? How many times did "Sieg Heil" come out of his mouth? How many Jews did he see rousted from their homes and carted off to the death camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Maidanek, and Dachau? Those are some of the questions that immediately sprang to my mind when the news came that the conclave of 115 Cardinals had elected the 78-year old German, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope.

Born on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn, a village of 2700 people on the Austrian border east of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger was eighteen years old when World War II ended.

Consider what John Aravosis, a Washington DC-based writer and political consultant, and the author of, wrote on his blog about Ratzinger and the Nazis in the hours immediately following his election.

"When is it fair to call a Nazi a Nazi?" Aravosis asked:

He was a member of the Hitler youth, and he belonged to a Luftwaffe AA battery. ... As some on the left note, just because he was a German soldier doesn't make him a Nazi (though I must admit the nuance is lost a bit on me... )

The thing is, I feel like some are exonerating Ratzinger's past specifically because of his past. It's almost as if the fact that he was in the Hitler Youth and the Nazi army somehow means "of course he wasn't a Nazi." That logic is a bit weird. It's as weird as folks today who say "how dare you compare what is happening in America to what happened in Nazi Germany." Many people like to think, for whatever reason, that the sins of the Nazis could never happen again, so per se it's bad form to even worry that they might or are. That's a rather dangerous and flippant view of history. And I think it's what's motivating some of the "how dare you call Ratzinger a Nazi" rhetoric.

It's almost as if we've gone from "how dare you think the Nazi horror could occur again" to "how dare you think the Nazis were Nazis?" Folks aren't saying -- yes, Ratzinger has some explaining to do. Rather they're saying, per se it's unfair to worry about his unfortunate youth working for Hitler's final solution and victory, and to at least suggest that maybe the Catholic Church could have done better for itself and the memories of what it did, or didn't do, during WWII.

While I firmly believe in forgiveness and personal redemption, and fully embrace the idea that individuals should be given a second, third and fourth chance to get their lives in order, I don't believe that that means that that person is then qualified to be pope.

Media Spectacular: The days leading up to the death of Pope John Paul II were television friendly. The spectacular funeral, with political and religious superstars from all over the world in attendance, received the most extensive media coverage of any funeral in the history of the world. Even before Pope John Paul II's death, media pundits were speculating as to who would be chosen the next pope. The clear favorite was Cardinal Ratzinger, a Vatican insider who has often been referred to as the Pope's "Grand Inquisitor" or "God's Rotweiler." There were other possibilities, but in reality the chances that the new pope would be from Latin America -- Latin Americans make up roughly half the world's Catholics -- or from Africa, were slim from the get-go.

On Tuesday, April 19, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became the first German Pope since the 11th century. Immediately after his election, some reports stressed that the new Pope is a "mild-mannered" man who is an "intellectual," "theological[ly] brilliant" (he's written over 40 books), and speaks ten languages. One reporter gushed that Ratzinger was a concert pianist who favored Beethoven. Other commentators talked about how he lived modestly and walked to work every day. Some said that despite his reputation for being a hardliner, he was in fact "a warm-hearted spiritual man."

In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger, who chose the name Pope Benedict XVI, is known for his ultra-conservative views. Since 1981, Ratzinger has been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, chief guardian of the church's orthodoxy; maintaining and enforcing its hard line on issues such as birth control, abortion and women in the priesthood.

2004 US Presidential Election: In addition, Ratzinger attempted to intervene in the recent presidential election. According to a July 7, 2004 report in the conservative, "In a private memorandum" that didn't mention then Democratic Party presidential candidate Senator John Kerry by name, Ratzinger "told American bishops that Communion must be denied to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion."

"Apart from an individual's judgment about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin," Ratzinger wrote.

If a politician such as Kerry "still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it," he added.

Pedophilia Scandal: What of Ratzinger's role in the Vatican's much-delayed response to reports of massive sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in the US? In 2002, sounding almost Tom DeLayish, Ratzinger told the Catholic News Service that he thought that the pedophile priest scandal was being driven by a media set on making the Catholic Church look bad:

"I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower.

"In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1% of priests are guilty of acts of this type. The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information nor to the statistical objectivity of the facts.

"Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the Church. It is a logical and well-founded conclusion."

Gays and Lesbians: Cardinal Ratzinger has railed against gays in his writings. According to Richard J. Rosendall, In 1986, Ratzinger issued his Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons stating that "the inclination [toward homosexuality] itself must be seen as an objective disorder." While condemning anti-gay violence, Ratzinger wrote: "[W]hen civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase." In the same letter, Rosendall wrote, "Ratzinger called gay rights advocacy a threat to the family."

Liberation Theology: "Ratzinger's presence is a disaster for Latin America," Bernardo Barranco, a Mexican sociologist and expert on religion, told the Associated Press. "He took it upon himself to liquidate liberation theology. He didn't understand Latin America," said Barranco, referring to the blend of the Gospel with Marxist-influenced politics dedicated to serving and empowering the poor.

"In his first words as pope delivered from the loggia overlooking St. Peter's Square," the Associated Press reported, "Benedict paid tribute in accented Italian to 'the great John Paul II'... [and] he called himself 'a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.'"

Will this "simple and humble worker" be able to heal a sharply divided church? In a time when the world's religious and political leaders ought to be concentrating on extending human and civil rights to those that have been historically denied, and should be rectifying the wrongs perpetrated upon the poor and the oppressed, Cardinal Ratzinger appears to represent the old guard. Will this ultraconservative Pope unite Catholics and bring them into a more enlightened twenty-first century, or will his actions attempt to return the church's 1.1 billion-members to the 16th century?


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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