The Turning Point

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

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As the brilliant young man with the photographic memory completed seminary and then university, his intuition found its theological grounding in some of St. Augustine's thought. A key concept in Augustine's great The City of God is that the Christian church is superior and essentially alien to its earthly surroundings. Later medieval church theologians like Thomas Aquinas introduced an alternative hypothesis, counseling that God's natural law enabled Christians to enjoy a sensible engagement with the world, a theology that gives hope to Catholic social activists and ecumenists. But Ratzinger, once asked to name two desert-island books, picked the Bible and Augustine's Confessions. Avery Dulles, a Cardinal and a well-known American theologian, said about the new Pope last week, "It's the two cities: city of God and city of man. He sees a world very much in conflict."

Yet Augustine, a bishop, had nothing against activism within the church, and Ratzinger was soon embroiled. At only 35, the still obscure theologian received an extraordinary offer: to act as peritus, or theological expert, for Cologne's powerful Joseph Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII.

The 1962-65 council continues to define and divide Catholicism. Simply put, church "reformers," including those in the U.S., have seen it as a mandate for the church to come into synch with modern Western culture. That means loosening its hierarchical authority, encouraging internal debate and external outreach and honoring individual freedom of conscience--a principle from Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which liberals regard as an especially important document and which many Western believers felt allowed them to keep taking part in sacraments like Holy Communion while privately disregarding teachings like the birth-control ban. Traditionalists suggest that the council's reforms were far less expansive than liberals imagine.

Ratzinger was, by acclaim, one of the young lions of the council. But roaring for whom? In 1993 he told TIME, "I see no break in my views as a theologian" over the years. Nonetheless, Allen, his biographer, doggedly culled conciliar notes and Ratzinger's subsequent commentaries to document what erstwhile comrades like K√ľng remember: despite some conservative stances (Frings delivered a damning critique of Gaudium), the young theologian was a progressive. Allen quotes Ratzinger extolling a "horizontal Catholicity" of the laity and bishops to balance out Rome's dominance and musing that church tradition, rather than being a "given," needs to be understood in terms of "growth, progress and knowledge of the faith." Ratzinger even critiqued the Vatican's heresy-hunting office (soon to be renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and eventually to come under his leadership) as "an all too smoothly functioning [body] which prejudged every question almost before it had come up for discussion."

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