Something happened to Benedict in the 1960s

A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger
A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger

With the outcomes from the current Synod on the Family, those of a more conservative bent are inclined to look back to the Benedict XVI years with more than nostalgia. The ambiguities arising in some of the Synod statements alarm those who recall Benedict’s Cartesian clarity and his commitment to clear speaking. Social and theological conservatives perceived him as the one person who could confront western liberalism with a heavy duty philosophical and theological arsenal. Francis is seen as popular, non-ideological, and reluctant to take sides. In that sense he is a clear counterpoint to the Ratzinger years. The contrast is inevitable.

I think Joseph Ratzinger will continue to fascinate us, all the more so now that he is secluded in retirement in a villa at the rear of the Vatican Gardens. This casts upon him an aura of a faintly shadowy figure who may be second-guessing Francis from the safety of his Vatican study. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the personal relations between Francis and Benedict are warm. One might wonder whether they have been seen walking together in the cool of a Roman summer evening? Frankly, I don’t know. But I would not rule this out.

There is no doubt that the man who became Benedict XVI in 2005 was a person marked by his past, both his family upbringing and, in particular, the events of 1968 in the university town of Tübingen. Germany’s youth was then in ferment. Those of an older generation will remember Danny the Red, now a respected European MEP.

The 1968 students were vocal, even aggressive, demanding change and unafraid to voice their opinions. One professor has remarked that when the University Senate agreed to meet with the students all the members stayed except one, Joseph Ratzinger, who gathered up his things and left the room (a recollection of Dietmar Mieth, today a Tübingen professor emeritus of ethics, currently teaching at the Catholic university in Erfurt). That image says it all. It suggests an independent-minded contrarian personality. Not someone who can ‘go with the flow’.

There is a very interesting 2005 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein on all of this which can be found here. This article by Bernstein, himself a renowned philosopher and sociology theorist from the States, which suggests that what happened to Joseph Ratzinger in Tübingen in 1968 left its mark. That it may have coloured his later thinking, however, may be somewhat wide of the mark. What is clear is that it reinforced tendencies towards caution in Benedict’s personality that already existed.

The New York Times article says:

The caution drew on his childhood in the fervently Catholic villages of Bavaria, where he saw Nazism firsthand. He attended a state-run school in Traunstein, which had Nazi teachers, but boarded at a church-run institution, St. Michael, where students lived in a seminary-like setting, under the tutelage of priests.

For a shy, bookish boy whose father was resolutely anti-Nazi, according to his elder brother, Georg, the church was a haven from Nazi propaganda. Both boys became priests. The church gave them educations, and, perhaps not incidentally, improved their social status.

”This was the family of a poor policeman in a Bavarian village, with extremely gifted children,” said Professor Obermair. The church was their ticket to social, intellectual, and even cultural advancement.

The Bernstein article paints a portrait of a shy, reclusive and serious-minded academic who was appalled at what he perceived as the excesses of the popular student movements of the time. What intrigues me are the recollection of the Tübingen students of the time, among them Professor Dieter Mieth, that Joseph Ratzinger. although admired for his scholarship, provoked sentiments of anger among the students. I can understand that this may well have been the case as the free-spirits of the sixties ran up against what they experienced as dogmatism. There is a certain irony in this in that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the more open-minded periti at the Second Vatican Council.

Some years ago I attended a concert in the Vatican. Benedict occupied the central place of honour on a raised white podium in the centre of the audience hall. The concert was given by a German orchestra and choir, whose name I have long forgotten. I also recall seeing Benedict’s brother, Georg, the Kapellmeister from Regensburg, now a Monsignor, who occupied one of the seats close to Benedict. Also attending was Benedict’s close female friend, a German physicist whose name I have also forgotten. There was something very human and very intimate about this trio, a reminder that Benedict, for all his reputation of aloof academic remoteness, had a demonstrable human side. This was also in evidence during his UK visit in 2012 when his grandfatherly manner endeared him to many and won over the British press.

Today, Benedict, as the Pope Emeritus, remains something of an enigma. Conspiracy theorists have cast him in a kind of Svengali role, a shadowy presence manipulating opposition to Francis. I, for one, have little time for this view. I think he remains plain Joseph Ratzinger, academic, classicist, musician and cat lover. To die with that inspiration on one’s grave would not be so bad.


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