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THE youthful Father Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, later, Pope Benedict XVI, was a brilliant theologian and academic who, at age 31 in 1958, was already a full professor at Bonn University. But before turning to the priesthood, he had been a POW in the Second World War. It was a war in which humanity seemed to have lost its soul. But no sooner had the world vowed to settle issues peacefully, and established the United Nations as a backstop than humans resumed wars.
In Asia, the two-stage Vietnamese War, first against France, and later against the United States, erupted on December 19, 1946. The world came close to another world war with the three-year Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950. The quite bloody Chinese Civil War which claimed over a million lives, also erupted in 1948, ending only with the triumph of the Maoist Revolution.
The French murdered over two million Algerians from 1954 to 1962 in a vain attempt to stop Algerian independence. In other parts of Africa, the ‘strong winds’ of independence were so strong that in 1960 alone, 17 countries in various shapes emerged from the yoke of colonialism, with many, like Kenya and Cameroon, having visible scars.
These events did not halt human progress, as the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, on April 12, 1961, and the United States launched Alan Shepard, the second, on May 5, 1961. The world was barely recognisable, and the Catholic Church was forced to locate itself in a grossly distorted world tainted by the biting and potentially destructive Cold War.
What roles had the church played when the world was on its knees, bleeding profusely? Was the church speaking to itself rather than communicating with the congregation? In any case, how can it communicate when the priest conducts mass only in Latin, which almost 100 per cent of Catholic faithful do not understand?
Did it know the world it was operating in? Should the Church be just about the ancient past, or, also about the modern world? Was it relevant and in danger of disintegrating and disappearing into folklore? The Church decided that the way out, was to convene the Second Vatican Council, which would bring bishops from all over the world to hold a mirror to itself, identify with the hopes and needs of Catholics worldwide, extend a hand of fellowship to other churches and religions and clear the pathway to the future.
In his 1975 book, The Runaway Church, Peter Hebblethwaite quoted a British bishop as saying that but for the Second Vatican, which held from 1962-65, “the Church would have been like the Loch Ness monster: rumoured to exist, of venerable antiquity, actually seen by some, but of not much relevance in the contemporary world.” Ratzinger, at 35, attended the Second Vatican as an aide to Cardinal Joseph Frings. It obviously had a positive impact on him until after 1968, when his views visibly began to change.
However, the Council had introduced democracy into a hitherto, highly hierarchical institution, with whoever was Pope as the infallible Vicar of Christ, the bishops as the unquestioned successors of the Apostles, and the priest as the Man of God in the parish. But the Second Vatican gave rise to another argument. If Jesus said the time is coming when God will not be worshipped in Jerusalem (the Temple) John 4:21, and that: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth,” (John 4:24). Where is the place of the Church as a temple? But the implication is: if worship leaves the temple and God is worshipped only in spirit and truth, that will be the end of the priesthood. It might mean that the Church was engaging in self-liquidation.
There were many progressive outcomes of the Second Vatican Council, such as the Church needing to identify with the meek, the poor, and the defenseless and even standing up against dictators. However, the fact that it allowed open debates among bishops, exposing disagreements, challenged traditional hierarchy and authority (where unquestioned obedience had previously been the case), and provided fertile ground for Liberation Theology meant that some saw the Council as endangering the Church. While Liberation Theology emphasizes social justice, environmental protection, and building God’s kingdom on earth to ensure His will is done as it is in heaven, its opponents claim it is the secularisation, radicalisation and politicisation of the Church.
Cardinal Siri of Genoa argued that “the Council was the greatest mistake in recent ecclesiastical history.” Some bishops, like Dr. McQuaid of Dublin and Cardinal MacIntyre of Los Angeles, were in revolt. Some 100,000 priests left within ten years, and to some, like Ratzinger, who had initially supported the liberal movement of the Church, the Second Vatican was like a genie that had escaped from the bottle; it had to be recaptured and rebottled.
This became Ratzinger’s quest for the rest of his life; returning the Catholic Church to its ancient traditions, untouched and unaffected by modernisation. As Archbishop of Munich from 1977, he was more Catholic than the Pope—and as the Head, Congregation of the Faith (the successor office to the Inquisition), the fear of Cardinal Ratzinger was, for many priests, the beginning of wisdom. He declared Liberation Theology a “singular heresy”, and clobbered its leaders like Leonardo Boff. He was so hawkish that he became known as “God’s rottweiler”. He capped it with being the Pope from April 19, 2005, to February 28, 2013, when he resigned, the first resignation of a Catholic pontiff in seven centuries.
Pope Benedict upheld the Church ban on birth control to the extent that when HIV/AIDS ravaged the world and there were appeals that he allows the use of condoms, at least for prevention, he refused. If one partner in a Catholic marriage was positive, the couple was expected to either refrain from copulating or risk infection. He also strictly upheld the Church ban on divorce, feminist ideas, and abortion, no matter the circumstances.
As Pope, he engaged in needless controversies. For instance, he claimed that Catholicism was the only true church of Christ and that Islam was an injurious faith spread by the sword.
He encouraged the conversion of Jews, but later tried to mend fences by exculpating Jews from allegations that they murdered Jesus Christ. By the time the Holy Father passed away on December 31, 2022, he had been so dislocated by the liberal history that made him that he had transformed into one of the most conservative Popes in history. But he could not defeat the Second Vatican; his successor, Pope Francis, is a product of the progressive spirit that permeated that ecclesiastical gathering 58 years ago.