The Turning Point

How the upheavals of 1968 turned a Vatican II reformer into an ardent conservative

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In the wide, book-lined hallway on the ground floor of his home office in Tübingen, Germany, Hans Küng runs a finger down a dusty contents page until he finds a name: Joseph Ratzinger. Together with Küng, who had recruited Ratzinger to the theology department at the University of Tübingen in 1966, the young theologian was an enthusiastic participant in the reforms of the extraordinary Second Vatican Council. They dined frequently, and the introvert Ratzinger sometimes accepted rides in the extrovert Küng's Alfa Romeo. The article open in Küng's leathered hands is titled "Collegiality": it advocates greater cooperation between the Vatican and Catholic bishops. "That was Ratzinger," says Küng, slapping the book shut and placing it back on the shelf. "Back then we were on the same side."

They haven't been for a long, long time. For all those wondering whether Pope Benedict XVI has the capacity to change his tune in response to a new set of circumstances, a telling example might be found in the events that occurred not long after the halcyon period Küng so ruefully recalls. Ratzinger had been teaching at Tübingen for two years when the West German version of the 1968 student protests broke out--a bit like the U.S.'s but with less psychedelia and more Marx. The university became a hotbed of radical theology. Students distributed flyers calling the Cross a sadomasochistic artifact. They threw tomatoes and yanked away professors' microphones to disrupt lectures and force "dialogue." "Those were tough times," remembers Küng. "And Ratzinger did not digest them very well."

It was an authority issue: European teachers back then were regarded as almost godlike, and for someone used to that kind of status and Catholicism's rigid hierarchies, such an overturning of authority was traumatic; Ratzinger would later call it "brutal." But, says Wolfgang Beinert, an assistant and friend of Ratzinger's at the time, there was also guilt. Beinert says because Ratzinger had advocated--was known for advocating--a greater openness and a loosening of ecclesiastical authority, the Tübingen strikes "triggered a huge fright. Ratzinger believed that he was in some way responsible, guilty of the chaos, and that the university and society and church were collapsing."

Beinert thinks that at that moment Ratzinger the reformer decided the necessary conditions for reform did not exist. The new Pope, Beinert notes, is a longtime student of St. Bonaventure and St. Augustine, who proposed a world dominated by ordo, God's all-inclusive order. "It is a world Ratzinger knows well," Beinert says. "As a child, Ratzinger grew up on this faith. Only on the basis of such order could you develop free and liberal thoughts." Alarmed by the Tübingen protests, Ratzinger left within a year and took a different path, away from moderate innovations like collegiality and back to order.

It is a thought to ponder. Historically at least, Pope Benedict XVI should be capable of great changes. The question is, Given his experiences before and since that turning point, could he ever be convinced that ordo had been sufficiently restored to again merit experimentation?

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