THE wartime past of a leading German contender to succeed John Paul II may return to haunt him as cardinals begin voting in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow to choose a new leader for 1 billion Catholics.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose strong defence of Catholic orthodoxy has earned him a variety of sobriquets — including “the enforcer”, “the panzer cardinal” and “God’s rottweiler” — is expected to poll around 40 votes in the first ballot as conservatives rally behind him.
Although far short of the requisite two-thirds majority of the 115 votes, this would almost certainly give Ratzinger, 78 yesterday, an early lead in the voting. Liberals have yet to settle on a rival candidate who could come close to his tally.
Unknown to many members of the church, however, Ratzinger’s past includes brief membership of the Hitler Youth movement and wartime service with a German army anti- aircraft unit.
Although there is no suggestion that he was involved in any atrocities, his service may be contrasted by opponents with the attitude of John Paul II, who took part in anti-Nazi theatre performances in his native Poland and in 1986 became the first pope to visit Rome’s synagogue.
“John Paul was hugely appreciated for what he did for and with the Jewish people,” said Lord Janner, head of the Holocaust Education Trust, who is due to attend ceremonies today to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“If they were to appoint someone who was on the other side in the war, he would start at a disadvantage, although it wouldn’t mean in the long run he wouldn’t be equally understanding of the concerns of the Jewish world.”
Now hold on for just a minute. The Ratzinger family was anti-Nazi, but the 14-year-old Josef Ratzinger was required by a 1941 law to be a member of the Hitler Youth until he could get an exemption because of his seminary studies -- all school children were. And yes, he served in an anti-aircraft battery, but he was drafted into that service at a time when the German Army was taking 15 & 16-year-olds and putting them on the front lines. Those who refused to serve were shot. Ratzinger himself deserted when he became aware of the slaughter of the Jews in the death camps, and was briefly held as in Allied POW camp.
You cannot make a Nazi or a war criminal out of a guy who was only six when Hitler came to power in 1933. It seems quite unreasonable to complain that a 16-year-old lacked the courage to place himself in mortal danger in the midst of the horrors that existed in wartime Nazi Germany. What is this really about?
It is about Ratzinger's theology, of course. He is one of the more conservative, orthodox wing of the College of Cardinals, and was the Pope's close associate and doctrinal point-man during much of John Paul II's pontificate. The two had been friends and colleagues since the Second Vatican Council, when they first met and worked together. Today they are frightened by the prospect of the man they have reviled for over two decades being mentioned prominently as a possible pope. And that is why some would do anything to keep him out of the Shoes of the Fisherman, even defame him and raise the spectre of Hitler and the Holocaust to tar a good and holy man.
His condemnations are legion — of women priests, married priests, dissident theologians and homosexuals, whom he has declared to be suffering from an “objective disorder”.
He upset many Jews with a statement in 1987 that Jewish history and scripture reach fulfillment only in Christ — a position denounced by critics as “theological anti-semitism”. He made more enemies among other religions in 2000, when he signed a document, Dominus Jesus, in which he argued: “Only in the Catholic church is there eternal salvation”.
In other words, his detractors are gravely concerned that Ratzinger is the one thing they cannot tolerate -- a believing Catholic, loyal to the historic teachings of the Catholic Church, and cut from the same cloth as the Pope he worked with for nearly a quarter century.
By this time next week there will almost certainly be a new pope. And soon thereafter, I expect we will begin to hear the true story of what happened in the Conclave. The question is -- will it be a story of Ratzinger's ascent to the Chair of Saint peter, or of the making of some other pope, probably with his support?