Review of Daniel Gawthrop, The trial of Pope Benedict. Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 3 (September 2013)

Review of Daniel Gawthrop, The trial of Pope Benedict. Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity (Vancouver. B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013), 315 Pp, ISBN 978-1-55152-527-3.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

It is rare, in our practice of church history, to be invited to review a book which is so filled with hostility towards its subject as is Daniel Gawthrop’s The Trial of Pope Benedict. Gawthrop was brought up in a traditional Catholic family, but as a boy and young adult was much influenced by ideas derived from the Second Vatican Council. His bishop had been appointed in 1962 as the youngest and newest Council Father, and participated fully in all its sessions. On his return to his Pacific Coast diocese, this bishop sought to implement the spirit and the reforms suggested at the Council. As a young Catholic activist, Gawthrop wanted to carry this process still further in the hopes of bringing the Catholic Church into the modern world, and rejuvenating its following. But he became disillusioned when the steps he hoped for were not taken. He now considers himself an ex-Catholic atheist. Among the changes he wanted to see were the abolition of clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, a permissive attitude towards homosexuality and same-sex marriages, the removal of the prohibition on abortion, and even the permission to engage in voluntary euthanasia. But all of these so-called “reforms” have been condemned by the Church authorities. Instead of recognising that such fantasies are derived from his own cloud-cuckooland wishful thinking, Gawthrop lays the blame on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the one individual in the Vatican hierarchy, he believes, whose sinister policies effectively undermined the impact of the Second Vatican Council, and turned the church into a breeding ground for reactionary, ultra-orthodox conservatism.

Gawthrop-TrialWriting with considerable journalistic flair, but of course without any Vatican official documentation, Gawthrop presents us with a highly critical account of Ratzinger’s career. To be sure, he allows that, during the Council’s sessions, Ratzinger, then a theological advisor to one of the German Cardinals, supported many of the reformist ideas. But only a few years later, while he was teaching at Germany’s most prestigious university of Tübingen, he was deeply offended by the virulent student radicalism embracing a “Marxist messianism”. As a result he turned away from his colleagues such as Hans Kung and other progressive theologians. Shortly afterwards he retreated to the rural backwater of Regensburg in his native Bavaria, and began to prepare his theological counter-offensive to Vatican II.

In May 1977 Ratzinger was promoted to be Archbishop of Munich, and a month later was made a cardinal. He was thus in place to attend the two conclaves of 1978, following the death of Pope Paul VI. Gawthrop obviously has a liking for Pope John Paul I, a clerical populist, who promised to carry forward the reforms so long blocked by his predecessor. But only a month later he was found dead in the papal apartment. Gawthrop still seems to believe that this sudden death was not natural, despite the evidence produced in David Yallop’s book. Possibly this is because this development put an end to Gawthrop’s unfulfilled wishful thinking for a progressive new Catholicism.

The accession of John Paul II brought a wholly different and staunchly conservative leader to the Vatican, marking in Gawthrop’s view “a decisive turn to the right which would ultimately put the torch to Vatican II”. The new Pope soon recognized he had an ally in Ratzinger, and shortly after in 1981 summoned him to Rome to be put in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was thus responsible for maintaining the church’s orthodoxy and blocking the introduction of novel or heretical ideas. While John Paul II played the role of a rock star, Ratzinger had to deal with liberal dissenters or undisciplined priests and professors. It was a part which he relished and played with increasing doctrinaire policies for the next twenty-four years. Over these years Ratzingrer would expel at least 107 theologians through defrocking, removal of teaching privileges, or official silencing through denouncement. Many others, including bishops, would be called to Rome and carpeted for “instruction”. Such behaviour was particularly galling to the victims, since there was no means of challenging Ratzinger’s authority, no appeal process, but only continuing disgrace and relegation in the church.

His first targets were those in Latin America who supported the ideas of liberation theology, especially Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez. But to Ratzinger, liberation theology replaced the Christian promise of redemption with a Marxist programme for secular salvation through revolution. It also challenged the internal hierarchy of the church by aligning priests with the poor instead of with Rome. By definition, liberation theology supported leftist political movements, and in Ratzinger’s view substituted political criteria for more spiritual goals. Such tendencies had therefore to be suppressed.

Similar dogmatic rigidities were expressed in Ratzinger’s policies with regard to other Christian denominations and other faiths, most notably in the year 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus, which stated that non-Catholic Christian ecclesial communities are not “churches” in the proper sense. Such a comment was naturally ill-received by both Protestants and Orthodox churchmen, and revealed the narrowness and intolerance of Ratzinger’s approach. Even more criticism was voiced about his views on other religions, which he claimed were seriously deficient in their access to the means of salvation. His well-known gaffe in a lecture in Regensburg in 2006 when he characterized Muslims as given to violence—admittedly in a historical context—caught world attention. To be sure, he carried on with John Paul’s desire to encourage better relations with Jews, and even visited Israel. But he made no reference while there to the long history of Christian anti-Judaism which contributed at least in part to the Nazi atrocities. Gawthrop is naturally scathing about such instances.

In the same vein, Gawthrop is highly critical of Ratzinger’s attempts to maintain the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith with his suppression of such forward-looking theologians as Matthew Fox with his ideas about creation spirituality, or Thomas Reese who advocated the ordination of women in his weekly Catholic journal, America. Likewise Ratzinger’s steadfast view that homosexuality represents an “intrinsic moral evil” was drawn from “the solid foundation of a constant Biblical testimony”. Gay rights activists are, in Ratzinger’s view “guided by a vision opposed to the truth about the human person, and reflect a materialistic ideology which denies the transcendent nature of the human personality as well as the supernatural vocation of each individual”. Gawthrop inevitably differs and asks whether such a view is fitting for pastoral care in the current century.

Gawthrop’s chapter on the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church provides damning evidence of the Vatican’s official culture of denial, cover-up and shaming, going back over half a century. From his position of authority for more than thirty years, Ratzinger could have done something about this. But his responses were unconvincing, overly defensive or too little and too late. In Gawthrop’s view a married clergy and female priests would produce a healthier and more balanced Catholic theology of sexuality, and would surely do something about the rapid exodus of priests from holy orders, as particularly seen in Ireland in recent years. But the demonization of homosexuality, the attempt to suppress the truth, the denials of local bishops, the reshuffling of accused priests to another assignment have all contributed to a disastrous situation.

Finally Gawthrop turns to the latest Vatican scandals with what the Vatican officials themselves called the “Vatileaks”. Gawthrop suggests that this was the final straw which led Pope Benedict to offer his resignation. But he has little hope that the institution has the courage to put matters to rights. The policies of ultra-orthodox conservatism have clearly failed. But whether Pope Francis, who is no less doctrinally conservative than his two predecessors, and is a Vatican neophyte to boot, can possibly provide the impetus for a more sweeping reform is very much open to question. In his epilogue Gawthrop suggests that the new Pope should summon a Vatican III which would reignite the fires of reform, decentralize power, and reopen the questions of priestly celibacy and women’s ordination. Such measures, he believes would do a lot to solve the troubling issues which now beset the church and might even enable some disillusioned ex-Catholics like himself to take another look inside the church’s doors.