Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's strict line on Catholic dogma has earned the chief Vatican guardian of orthodoxy a host of nicknames: the Enforcer, the Fundamentalist and Panzerkardinal, a German neologism that compares the Bavarian-born prelate to a battle tank.
Ratzinger has long been one of Pope John Paul II's closest collaborators. But he has recently taken on an exceptional role as the Vatican's most forceful voice on a range of important and controversial issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when the ailing pope is seen and heard less and less by the public, Ratzinger's prominence has earned him another nickname in ecclesiastic gossip: John Paul III.
"Cardinal Ratzinger is a singular figure in the history of his office and perhaps the church," said Gianni Baget Bozzo, a theologian who specializes in the Vatican. "He takes the initiative on a wide range of subjects in a way that is usually reserved to the pope. That's not to say he acts against the pope. He is trusted. But he is a kind of vice pope."
"He is certainly very visible," said Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "He has always been extremely strong, given the pope's friendship and confidence. He keeps his finger in everything."
Ratzinger's visibility and the pope's frailty have reawakened the question of who is in charge at the Vatican. Some observers predicted that he would be a strong candidate to succeed John Paul II. His conservatism fits with the thinking of most of the cardinal electors picked by John Paul II. But at 77, Ratzinger is the oldest of the so-called papabili, cardinals frequently mentioned as papal candidates.
"In spite of his age, Ratzinger has recently jumped to the top of the list of candidates," wrote one Vatican watcher, Sandro Magister, in L'Espresso magazine recently. "Some look at him as if he were already de facto pope, the stony defender of the faith in a church under attack from modernity."
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger has made several waves over the past year. Top among them was a letter he sent in August to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington advising clergy that they must deny Communion to supporters of abortion rights who, he said, persist in cooperating in what he termed a "grave sin." The note also provided advice on how Catholic voters should proceed when faced with a choice that included a candidate who supported abortion rights. No names were mentioned, but several American bishops had spoken out against Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, for his views on abortion. In the end, the U.S. bishops decided to leave these decisions to individual prelates. The letter was leaked in Italy, and its publication created consternation in the Vatican, especially in the office of the secretary of state, which handles international affairs.
"Ratzinger was either naive by thinking such a letter would not be made public or wanted to make a statement against Kerry," said a high-ranking Vatican official. "If he really wanted his advice [to remain] private, he could have sent someone to speak to McCarrick."
In August, Ratzinger told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Turkey, a largely Muslim country, ought not be admitted to the European Union. "Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. The roots that have formed it . . . are those of Christianity," he said. "Turkey, which is considered a secular country but is founded upon Islam, could instead attempt to bring a cultural continent together with some neighboring Arab countries."
Ratzinger said he was expressing a personal opinion. But such is the perception of Ratzinger's weight in the Vatican that diplomats quickly besieged Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, with queries about Vatican opinion, diplomats assigned to the Holy See said. He responded that the Vatican was neutral on the issue.
There is no indication that the pope is dissatisfied with Ratzinger's views or activities. Vatican officials said Ratzinger was too busy to be interviewed for this article and declined to discuss him on the record.
John Paul II has referred to the German theologian as his "trustworthy friend." They became acquainted four decades ago at the Second Vatican Council, which laid out church reforms under Pope John XXIII. Ratzinger has headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981, three years after John Paul II became pope. The congregation is the historical successor to the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, one of the oldest departments in the Vatican. Sometimes, it is known as the Holy Office. John Paul II has said its functions are "to promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world."
Observers said Ratzinger's views have been heavily influenced by the harrowing experience of two contending ideologies: fascism, which he experienced as a youth in Germany, and the Marxism rife in German universities during the 1960s.
"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," wrote John Allen, a journalist and biographer of Ratzinger.
In his early years in office, Ratzinger moved to stamp out vestiges of liberation theology, a current of Catholic thought born in the 1960s that emphasized grass-roots organization to free people from poverty. Its association with Marxist groups and revolutionary movements appalled both John Paul II and Ratzinger.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the pope's attention increasingly turned to issues of morality, especially regarding materialism in the developed world. In 2001, musing on an anything-goes world, he lamented that "the concept of authority no longer exists."
He has fought against trends in ecumenism that suggest that Catholicism is but one of many ways to salvation. On issues of sex , morality and ethics, he minces no words. He called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil." In recent years, he has taken on social and scientific trends that, he argued, attack the natural order. At a public debate in Rome recently, he likened cloning to "weapons of mass destruction."
"Man is capable of producing another man in the laboratory who therefore is no longer a gift from God or of nature. . . . Just as he can be fabricated, he can be destroyed," Ratzinger said.
Ratzinger has also defended the Vatican from criticism. At the height of the scandal of priestly pedophilia in the United States, he blamed the uproar on a media conspiracy. "I am personally convinced," he told an interviewer, "that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the U.S., is a planned campaign."
Vatican observers said that under Ratzinger, the Holy Office has become the lead Vatican department. In recent papacies, the department largely handled cases of individual doctrinal transgressions. Under Ratzinger, the functions have expanded to include broad policy statements meant for wide audiences usually addressed by the pope. The most recent example, experts said, was Ratzinger's letter on women, addressed to bishops worldwide. The letter criticized forms of feminism that made women "adversaries" of men. He wrote that the blurring of sexual identity had "made homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent."
"This was practically an encyclical," Bozzo said. "The style of Ratzinger is the style of a pope."