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Son of Bavaria

John L. Allen Jr., NCR’s Rome correspondent, is the author of a new book, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 340 pages, $24.95). The following are excerpts from the book’s first chapter, “Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow.”

Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, the youngest of three children in a lower-middle-class Bavarian household. Just a month later, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in the Spirit of Saint Louis. Lindbergh’s path would intersect, in a remote way, with Ratzinger’s again. During the 1930s, Lindbergh emerged as one of the leading American sympathizers with National Socialism. In 1941, he gave a famous speech identifying the three forces leading America into war as “the British, Roosevelt, and the Jews.” Radio broadcasts of this remark played widely across Germany, no doubt including Ratzinger’s hometown of Traunstein. The Nazis had ensured that radios were cheap and plentiful so their propaganda could reach every corner of the Reich.

In Rome, Pius XI was five years into his pontificate in 1927, and more concerned with increasing devotion to his new Feast of Christ the King than with the gathering war clouds in Europe. Germany was in the late stages of the Weimar Republic, menaced by the threat of a Bolshevik workers’ uprising as well as by various conservative and nationalistic factions. Hitler was the leader of one of those factions, the National Socialists, despite the fact that he was not a German citizen. He renounced his Austrian citizenship in 1925 and was not granted German citizenship until 1932, on the eve of his run for president. At about the time Ratzinger was born, Hitler recruited a new publicist to his team named Joseph Göbbels.

In rural southern Bavaria, April 16, 1927, was one of those snowy, bitterly cold days the region sometimes gets in the spring. Bavarians are a tough lot, in part because by butting up against the Alps, they get some of the worst weather in middle Europe. It did not help that Ratzinger entered the world at 4:15 A.M., in the icy chill of the early morning. His older brother and sister were not allowed to come to his baptism for fear of getting sick.

Perhaps it was fate that Ratzinger was born on Holy Saturday, and his parents were named Joseph and Mary. Like another child of another Joseph and Mary, Ratzinger grew up to become a sign of contradiction, a scandal to some and a sort of savior to others. Ratzinger reports in his 1998 autobiography that because he was born on Holy Saturday, he was baptized with the newly blessed Easter water in the small parish church in the village of Marktl am Inn. It is difficult not to read some kind of sacred meaning into the scene, and Ratzinger has not resisted, seeing it as a symbol of the human condition in its “not quite” relation to Easter and the resurrection.

Now seventy-three, Ratzinger’s childhood memories are the ones most closely tied to his understanding of who he is and what he believes. Listening to him and reading him today, it is striking that Ratzinger rarely makes reference to his mid-twenties through mid-forties, the years as a professional theologian during which he achieved wide fame. When Ratzinger wants to strike an autobiographical chord, he always looks back to his early days in one of four small Bavarian towns. Those memories are of intimate moments shared with his family; of the rock-solid Catholic ethos of Bavaria, expressed in the liturgy and the simple faith of the people; of his own intellectual awakening, fueled by classical languages and literature; and, finally, of the political and social upheavals of the day, most dramatically, the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Memory, however, is selective. When people reach back across their lifetimes, memory becomes a redactor, editing images so they cohere with the person’s current understanding of self. People reshape, reinterpret, and distort their pasts in light of their present interests and priorities. To fully understand Ratzinger, therefore, it is necessary to round out his picture, to recover some of the elements of his early days that his own published recollections and remarks have omitted.

Of special interest is the most famous member of the Ratzinger family prior to Joseph, his great-uncle Georg Ratzinger (not to be confused with Joseph’s brother of the same name). This elder Ratzinger was a rebel inside the church and out, and those who know Joseph Ratzinger today sometimes wish he had a bit more of his famous relative in him. As we will see, Georg Ratzinger had a dark side as well.

The question of Ratzinger and the Third Reich also merits special attention. Neither Ratzinger nor any member of his family was a National Socialist. Ratzinger has said several times that his father’s criticism of the Nazis was responsible for the four moves the family made during Ratzinger’s first ten years. Such opposition by itself is unremarkable; many German Catholics complained about the party’s encroachment on the church. Neither the elder Ratzinger nor either of the two sons took part in any kind of resistance. Although Ratzinger today calls such resistance “impossible,” there were in fact several models in his immediate orbit, including members of the Communist Party, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and fellow Catholics.

More important is the question of what conclusions Ratzinger draws from the war. Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesial totalitarianism. In other words, he believes the Catholic church serves the cause of human freedom by restricting freedom in its internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believes. It is a position he defends ably, but it is strikingly different from the conclusions of many of Ratzinger’s German theological peers who also lived through the Nazi era.

If his childhood under the Nazis was one stream of influence on the young Ratzinger, the other was his intellectual awakening in the seminary and graduate school. Ratzinger’s mental reservoir was filled with images and arguments from the various thinkers he encountered. Four such men have had great intellectual impact on Ratzinger: Augustine, Bonaventure, Guardini, and Balthasar.

A school of philosophical thought fashionable today says human identity is formed by a mental “bundle,” referring to a unique set of memories arranged and recalled in idiosyncratic fashion. To understand Joseph Ratzinger, therefore, we need to understand what was in his bundle.

Almost as much as John Paul II is Polish, Joseph Ratzinger is Bavarian. In 1998, when he presented his new autobiography to the German-speaking world in a press conference, he did so in the Kloster Andech monastery in Upper Bavaria. Introducing Ratzinger, Abbot Odilo Lechner said in praise of the cardinal, “You have always made it clear that heaven and earth are bound together in a special way in Bavaria.”

When the Roman Empire fell, Bavaria was divided into three sections: the north occupied by the Franks, the west by the Alemanni, and the south and east by the Baiuvarii, the tribe that eventually gave the territory its name. This division still exists today, as Bavaria is an amalgam of three distinct regions: Franconia in the north, Swabia in the west, and the “real Bavaria” in the south and east. Ratzinger’s family comes from this “real” Bavarian stock.

The Wittelsbach kings of Bavaria were opponents of the Protestant Reformation, and during the sixteenth century Bavaria became an officially, and strictly, Catholic state. Even today one could parachute into Bavaria at random, landing at however remote or isolated a spot, and be within eyesight of a Catholic church or shrine. Jesuit Michael Fahey, a student of Ratzinger’s during his days in Tilbingen, says this is a critical point in understanding Ratzinger. He is spiritually and culturally Bavarian, which means he is most comfortable in an all-Catholic setting. An appreciation for diversity was not something he imbibed growing up, and a preference for homogeneity remains part of his character. …

Today Bavaria is known as one of the most culturally traditional and politically conservative pockets of the country. Despite its economic success, Bavaria has resisted urbanization to a remarkable degree. In the early 1990s, almost half of the population still lived in locales of less than 5,000 population. Ratzinger grew up in a series of those Bavarian hamlets, and his family has deep roots in the Bavarian soil.

Great-Uncle Georg

Before the cardinal, the most famous Ratzinger was Joseph’s great uncle on his father’s side, Georg, one of the towering Bavarian figures of the nineteenth century. In a 1985 special anthology of Bavarian biography published in Regensburg, Georg Ratzinger made the list of the 1,000 most important Bavarian personalities of the past 1,500 years. His fame came as a journalist, an author, and a politician. Over the years, he edited a number of newspapers, including the Wochenblattes für katholische Volk and the Volksfreundes. His best-known book was Die Volkswirthschaft in ihren sittlichen Grundlagen (The economy in its ethical foundations), published in 1881 and brought out in a second edition in 1885. Ratzinger was twice elected to the Bavarian and the federal legislatures.

In light of who Joseph Ratzinger has become, there are three aspects of his great-uncle’s life that hold most interest: his connection to Johann Ignaz von Döllinger; his “option for the poor” in his own political career; and his anti-Semitism.

Georg Ratzinger was born in Rickering, Bavaria, in 1844, the son of a farmer. He went to gymnasium in Passau and studied Catholic theology at the University of Munich. There he won a prize for his dissertation on the history of the church’s care for the poor. During his four years at the university, 1863 to 1867, Ratzinger studied under and became the assistant of the most controversial Catholic figure of his day, Johann Ignaz von Döllinger.

Döllinger was then coming into his own as a fierce critic of Roman centralism and the movement towards papal absolutism called “ultra-montanism” (meaning “beyond the mountains,” in reference to the fact that the biggest supporters of an authoritarian papacy were in France, England, and Germany, not in Italy). Italians at the time were engaged in a war against the papacy in order to unify the country. (It is one of the great ironies of modern Roman life that every day at noon a cannon goes off, celebrating the Italian victory over the pope!) Döllinger’s key idea was the “organic development” of church tradition, a notion he shared with England’s John Henry Newman. Early in his career, Döllinger employed the idea to refute Protestantism, which he saw as an unacceptable break in historical continuity. Later, Döllinger came to believe that the greatest enemy of historical continuity in the church was the papacy itself, that its claims to absolute authority were foreign to the true Catholic understanding.

In 1863, Döllinger organized (probably with Ratzinger’s help) a congress of a hundred Catholic theologians in Munich. In his opening address, Döllinger blasted scholasticism, a narrow school of theology based on a particular reading of Thomas Aquinas and regarded by Rome as the official theology of the church. He called for an assertion of scholarly independence from Vatican authority.

Around the same time Döllinger suggested the creation of a German national church headed by a metropolitan, with only a symbolic connection to the papacy. In the same vein, he called for education of German priests in universities rather than seminaries. This latter suggestion became more or less standard practice. Ironically, it was Döllinger who convinced the German bishops they should meet on a regular basis. The meetings anticipated the creation of bishops’ conferences, against whose power Joseph Ratzinger would later struggle so mightily.

By 1867, in his inaugural address as the rector of the University of Munich, Döllinger went further: “The papacy is based on an audacious falsification of history,” he declared. “A forgery in its very outset, it has, during the long years of its existence, had a pernicious influence on church and state alike.” To no one’s surprise, when Vatican I declared the pope infallible in 1870, Döllinger led the dissent. He was excommunicated in March 1871 and fired from the university. Ludwig II of Bavaria befriended Döllinger, however, and Döllinger went on to have a successful political career. Though Döllinger said that he belonged to the Old Catholics who split from Rome over the infallibility issue “by conviction,” he never attended their services and refused to become their first bishop. After his excommunication, he continued attending Catholic Mass, but did not receive communion.

Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1867, resigned as Döllinger’s assistant in order to take up his first pastoral appointment in Berchtesgaden. There is no evidence that he ever publicly associated himself with the ecclesial positions of his mentor, yet there are two intriguing hints in this direction. First, Ratzinger voluntarily resigned his priesthood in 1888, in a day when laicized priests were rare. Second, politically Ratzinger gravitated away from the Center Party, which was the established Catholic party, and toward the farmers and workers parties, both of which had a definite anticlerical tone. In any event, Ratzinger assisted Döllinger during the four years, 1863 to 1867, in which his antipapal views took their sharpest form.

Politically, Georg Ratzinger was an apostle of the new Catholic social teaching, officially expressed for the first time in Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum in 1891. The idea was to carve out a Christian alternative to both Marxism and capitalism, to develop a blueprint for a state based on Catholic social principles. Ratzinger served in the Bavarian Landtag from 1875 to 1878 and again from 1893 to 1899, and in the national Reichstag from 1877 to 1878 and 1898 to 1899. His first term in each chamber was as a member of the Patriots’ Party, a Catholic party launched in 1869 to combat the effects of the Kulturkampf in Bavaria. Ratzinger’s second term in each was served as a deputy of the new Bauernbund, or “Farmers’ Party,” he helped launch in 1893. In between, Ratzinger was a member of the Center Party.

Aside from the irony of a Ratzinger holding elected office as a priest (which today’s Ratzinger, along with the pope, sees as a betrayal of the priest’s office), there is a special measure of poetic justice in Georg Ratzinger’s politics. They were to some degree in the nineteenth century what Latin American liberation theology attempted to be in the twentieth: a means of empowering the poor and translating Catholic social teaching into public policy.

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000