Media Matters

What Made Benedict Conservative?

What happened to Joseph Ratzinger at Tubingen?

By 7.8.05

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What happened at Tubingen?

It took me a month to answer that question. According to the media, Tubingen is the German university where, in 1968, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- the future Pope Benedict XVI -- became a conservative. He did so, according to media accounts, because of left-wing student protests in 1968, when Ratzinger was a professor.

Is that true? That a brilliant and deeply reflective theologian and priest simply freaked out over some student protests and became orthodox? Perhaps, but if so the more compelling question the media ignored is, if the protests changed Ratzinger, what exactly about them did it? The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, TV pundits and Newsweek were all vague: there were student protests. The kids were influenced by Marxism and even invaded Ratzinger's classroom to perform sit-ins. This instantly formed and remains the media template for judging the new pope's life.

But to me it all seemed more than a little bogus. Sure, Pope Benedict seems a gentle soul -- but this drove him from the campus and made him a conservative? When an anonymous source who may or may not even be real asserts that American troops fighting the war on terror flushed a Koran down the toilet, it runs in Newsweek and causes pandemonium around the world. Yet the same magazine can't be bothered to investigate the simple question of what formed the pope's worldview. It's hard to believe, but it seems the liberal bias in the media is still, after all these years, causing more than a few reporters to cover for communists. In its coverage, Time magazine (and remember these people are journalists paid handsomely to get the story) offered a tantalizing tidbit: at one point student protestors had referred to the Cross of Christ as "a sadomasochistic object." Well, at least here was something genuinely scandalous and offensive. So who said it? Time doesn't answer. What else was said? Silence. In his book Why I Am a Catholic, Garry Wills only refers to Ratzinger's irrational fear of the "noisy students" in 1968. Noisy students -- how bad could that be? Did Ratzinger just flip out?

Curious, I ordered the reissue of John Allen's biography of Ratzinger, now titled Pope Benedict XVI. It's over 300 pages. Surely Allen, a liberal but fairly competent report for the National Catholic Reporter, would have the answer. He reports that, in the "Annus Mirabilis" of 1968, Marxist students did indeed take over the campus at Tubingen. Moreover, the Protestant Students Union issued a flyer that asked the question, "So what is Jesus' cross but the expression of a sado-masochistic glorification of pain?" The flyer also asserted that "The New Testament is a document of inhumanity, a large-scale deception of the masses." Allen also reports that a Protestant colleague of Ratzinger's urged the students, "The cry of 'Cursed be Jesus!' must never again be heard in our midst!" The students didn't care.

Despite the obfuscations of Time, Newsweek, et al., I was finally getting the story. But there was still an omission -- Ratzinger's colleague talked about the cry "Cursed be Jesus!" Where did it come from? Here Allen was no help. He quotes Ratzinger, explaining that Tubingen showed him "an instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the council.... I did see how real tyranny was exercised, even in brutal forms -- anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity." But who cursed Jesus?

Finally, finally I found the answer, in Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview with Ratzinger himself. The book includes the full text of the quote used above by Allen. It's very instructive first to reread the above quote used by Allen. At the end of it is the line, "I did see how real tyranny was exercised, even in brutal forms -- anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity."

I hit paydirt in the material that had been elliptically clipped out by Allen. For between the phrase ending "brutal forms" and the line "anyone who wanted to remain a progressive" is some very, very crucial information. The ellipses in fact omits a paragraph in which Ratzinger cites the memoir of his Protestant colleague Wolfgang Beyerhaus, who was also at Tubingen. Beyerhaus recalled the lines on the flyer, but also the title of the flyer: "Jesus the Lord -- Partisan Kasemann." Kasemann is a German colloquialism meaning "nonsense, rubish, balderdash." The students -- those noisy harmless mice in Garry Wills's recollection -- were cursing the name of Christ. It was professor and Ratzinger colleague Ulrich Wickert who implored the young Marxists not to curse the name of Jesus, all to no avail. Ratzinger: "It never got quite so bad in the Union of Catholic theology students, but the basic current, which surged powerfully into it as well, was the same. So I knew what was at stake: anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity."

Imagine for a moment that some members of the U.S. Army issued a flyer calling the Koran an instrument of oppression and Mohammed balderdash and rubbish. Do you think the media would report all of it? MOHAMMED CALLED RUBBISH would be the front page of every paper and the lede item on the nightly news. There would be outraged press releases by anti-discrimination groups and sensitivity seminars convened. That cursing the name of Jesus Christ may have played a part in Ratzinger's philosophical development? Not worth mentioning.

It should also be said that the very premise of the media's coverage is questionable. The idea that a brilliant theologian and author like Ratzinger dove headfirst into the dark side of orthodox Catholicism because of student protests alone, and not after deep reflection and study, is shaky at best. Indeed, it could be argued that Ratzinger remained a liberal while the students embraced the far left. Still, Ratzinger the neocon who lost it at an innocent student sit-in is now the media default position on Ratzinger. We'll be dealing with it for a long time, truth be damned.

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About the Author

Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series, and other books.