Will Joseph Ratzinger’s Grim Legacy Outlive Him?

The death of Joseph Ratzinger, who served as Pope Benedict XVI (2005-13), was announced just as I was finishing Beverly Gage’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover, a confluence of the personal and the global that brought a certain chill to the spine. While Hoover administered the U.S. FBI for 50 years, repressing socialists and dissidents with grim efficiency, Ratzinger ran the Catholic Church’s repressive arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition, for nearly a quarter century, 1981-2005, and continued his reactionary policies as pope for another eight years, a total of 32 years in power. Unlike Hoover, who could directly imprison his targets and even have them executed, Ratzinger’s power operated as the silencing of progressive clerics and as a part of a vast ideological apparatus that influenced wide swathes of society, given the Church’s global reach as the world’s largest religious organization. Many died from his ideological repression nonetheless, from Latin American revolutionaries to people with AIDS in Africa.

In the early 1980s, Ratzinger was recruited to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II (r. 1978-2005), the Polish conservative who, along with his allies Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, inaugurated the era of rightwing retrenchment known today as neoliberalism. Ratzinger was a real intellectual, philosophically trained, whose job was to study their writings and ferret out Church dissidents on the left, especially those connected to Theology of Liberation. Most notable among these was Brazilian Leonardo Boff, “silenced” by Ratzinger in 1982 and eventually driven out of the priesthood.  But Ratzinger did not even have the simple humanity to spare his old colleague and friend Hans Küng, the liberal Swiss theologian who had hired him as a professor at Tübingen University in 1966 and whom he refused to reinstate after John Paul II had excluded Küng.

Ratzinger was still something of a Church liberal in the early 1960s, part of the group that worked with the reforms initiated at the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII.  But one thing stuck in Ratzinger’s craw, even then: He objected to the modernization of the liturgy, of changing the “beautiful” old rituals that sometimes inspired the laity (Stéphanie de la Bars, “Joseph Ratzinger,” Le Monde, Jan. 3, 2023). This was of course in direct opposition to Enlightenment thinkers like feminist founder Mary Wollstonecraft, who favored a rational morality based in some religious principles rather than ecstasy or ritual: “Men will not become more moral when they only build airy castles… if they turn their thoughts from relative duties to religious reveries” (For a discussion of this point from Wollstonecraft and how Michel Foucault was also attracted to the anti-rational, even fanatical side of religion, see my essay in For Humanism, ed. by David Alderson and Robert Spencer [2017]). This clinging to ritual later allowed Ratzinger as pope to reintegrate the reactionary clerics who had left after Vatican II, which meant allowing this faction to give the old Latin mass, including its anti-Semitic passages.

Ratzinger became an outright counterrevolutionary in the face of the late 1960s. As Ian Fisher and Rachel Donadio nonetheless acknowledge in a New York Times obituary that at other times almost fawns: “He was especially troubled by student demonstrations at the University of Tübingen…. ‘Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations,’ Benedict wrote in his memoirs” (“Quiet Scholar Defended Doctrine and Unexpectedly Quit,” NYT, Jan. 1, 2023). He became a target of student protestors for his increasingly conservative views, and soon left for a more conservative university. At Tübingen, Marxist philosopher and theologian Ernst Bloch, also a professor there after having left East Germany, had much more influence than Ratzinger among the students, who spray-painted “Ernst Bloch University” over the university’s entrance sign in 1968.

The fear and loathing that the near-revolution of 1968 sparked in Ratzinger knew no bounds. He even blamed the existence of pedophile and abusive clerics, not on centuries of misguided gender ideology, but on the anti-authoritarian spirit of the 1960s. This fear and loathing became the driving force of the rest of his life.

Fittingly, Ratzinger’s funeral was a stew of religious and political reaction. Fox News attacked Joe Biden for not attending. Hungary’s Viktor Orban showed up, as did Poland’s equally reactionary Andrzej Duda. Many far-right clerics from around the world also did so, plotting their next steps. In a Church dominated from 1977-2013 by hardline conservatives, the relatively moderate Pope Francis still contends with a clergy that contains many, many real reactionaries in positions of power, not least in the U.S. College of Cardinals.

When I finished Gage’s book on Hoover, it hit me that this man had conducted not one but three red scares: vs. the socialists and anarchists after World War I, during the McCarthyite witch hunts that should really be named after the more subtle and effective Hoover, and then vs. the New Left and the Black Panthers of the 1960s. In each case, Hoover ultimately won the day, and the left was pushed back, with many even losing their lives. Moreover, Hoover’s legacy has been resurrected by the far right today, who again scare the public via red-baiting, of course alongside their usual racist, sexist, heterosexist, and transphobic appeals.

What will be Ratzinger’s legacy? I fear that it will outlive him too. To avoid that eventuality, we need to combat firmly and with principle all the fearmongering put forth from that kind of direction. At the same time, we should never fall into a facile form of atheism that condemns all religious expression as reactionary, whether inside Christianity, Islam, or elsewhere. Indeed, that type of atheism gives the Ratzingers of this world something to feed upon. Progressive and radical believers are our allies, with whom we need to be in constant dialogue as we construct a Marxist-Humanism capacious enough to include the most revolutionary and thoughtful among them, while making no concessions on matters of principle.