Joseph Ratzinger; My memories.

As I sit down now to write my reflections on Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger, it is about twenty four hours since his death was announced, and I have heard and read many people commenting and giving their assessment of this man, and of his contribution to the Catholic Church. I think it is fair to say that I am one of the Irish people whose life has been most significantly effected by his attitudes and his exercise of power. I am now into the eleventh year since, under his papacy, I was forbidden to exercise my ministry as a priest, and I will shortly celebrate my seventy sixth birthday. (Sean Fagan was more severely dealt with, but he has now deceased). I wouldn’t even attempt to measure the negative impact his teaching and action had on LGBTQ people, and on those abused by priests and religious. I am focusing on those of us, theologians, priests, religious and lay, who were punished in one form or another for our writings on matters to do with Church teaching and doctrine, and various aspects of the faith.

Not that I had any direct dealings with Joseph Ratzinger. He had left the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by the time they came after me. It was 2012, and he had been pope for about five years at that stage. But the CDF that dealt with me was very much of his making, during his long years in charge there. The then head, William Levada, was not a man who was either capable or wished to do things differently than his predecessor in the office; he carried on exactly as he had learned from Ratzinger. And his successor, Gerhard Meuller, was very much in the image and likeness of Ratzinger. 

There are two things that stand out for me from my experience of what I like to call ‘the Ratzinger Vatican’.

The first was a total conviction about the rightness of their beliefs and practices. They believed they had the truth, the whole truth, and that nobody could argue with them on any matter to do with the faith and the Church. There was a type of ‘contagious infallibility’, which meant that they didn’t feel the need to discuss anything with anybody. They had nothing to learn, and certainly not from people who held opinions that differed from their own. Those people, they believed, were in error, and error had no rights.

The second one was their complete lack of respect for the people they considered in error. This expressed itself in my case by not allowing me any opportunity to exercise any of the rights that accused people are accorded by the law systems of all civilised societies. I was not allowed to know who my accusers were. (I heard indirectly that I had been accused by a senior member of the Irish hierarchy, but, though I have my suspicions, I don’t know who that was. I was well aware that there were also certain lay and clerics who regularly reported myself and others to Rome in those years but pondering the identity of “reporters” can have a negative effect on the person “reported”). The Vatican authorities did not consider it necessary to meet with me, and to give me the opportunity to defend myself. At no stage did they ever communicate with me directly; it was all done through my Superior General in Rome. And, maybe worst of all, there was no appeal process of any nature.

This was the system Joseph Ratzinger shaped and honed during his years as head of the CDF. (I know it existed long before him, but he put his particular dogmatic and authoritarian shape to it during a time when the world was changing rapidly, and human rights were being recognised widely around the world.

So, do I regret his death? I can’t really say that I do.  But I do say a prayer for him, and wish him eternal peace. All of us, pope and pauper, face the same end, whatever exactly that will be.

I suppose in his later life I had a certain sympathy for him. Contrary to what many commentators say, I have no doubt that he wanted to be pope. His actions during the death and funeral of his predecessor, and during the days before the conclave seemed to suggest that.   But we should be careful what we wish for. He was not able for the task he had so desired, and he had the good grace to resign, for which of course he will be most publicly remembered.  Some of us will have our personal memories.