What’s love got to do with it? The life and work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Centre: Ben Wildflower‘s image of Mary and her words in the Magnificat (Luke 46-55). Among speakers at the 2005 World Forum on Theology and Liberation in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (left) and Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya (right), both reprimanded by the Vatican in previous decades.

Jim Hodgson

Why write about the death of a former pope and cardinal in a blog about development? Because his condemnation of several liberation theologians in the 1980s and later were attacks on the most vigorous and coherent critique of contemporary development practice – or the ways inequality and exploitation are either maintained or overcome – to emerge from Christians in the late 20th century. And whatever good he may have done will always be overshadowed by the harsh treatment of some of our era’s finest theologians by Ratzinger during his leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). 

When I came to Toronto in early 1984 to work with Catholic New Times, one of my “beats” was to cover the ways the Vatican was contending with liberation theology and its advocates. Over time, such scrutiny was imposed on feminists, defenders of LGBTI people, and advocates of respect for religious pluralism – and continued into Benedict’s pontificate. (Other writers elsewhere are recalling too his role in covering up clerical sexual abuse.)

Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of those who were reprimanded by Ratzinger and his CDF successors. Some found solidarity in the global ecumenical movement and join events like the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an event held every couple of years since 2003 alongside the World Social Forum.

The central tenet of liberation theology – the preferential option for the poor – is now enshrined in Catholic social teaching. Debates continue, of course, about what we mean by “the poor” as new (and not-so-new) theological “subjects” emerge among those who are marginalized from patriarchal power in churches and beyond, and by political and economic structures that persist. And it’s important to remember that not all of those censured by the CDF had come under scrutiny because of their option for the poor, but also because of their analysis of power in the church (Leonardo Boff), relationships with other religions (Tissa Balasuriya, Roger Haight), rights of women (Ivone Gebara), ecology (Matthew Fox), or defence of sexual and gender minorities (Raymond Hunthausen, Jeannine Gramick, Robert Nugent), among others.

My single encounter with Cardinal Ratzinger came on April 23, 1986 when he spoke to a crowd of about 6,000 people at the old Varsity Arena at the University of Toronto. Outside, members of the Canadian Catholics for the Ordination of Women protested. The event was sponsored by Frank Stronach’s multinational auto parts company, Magna International. The crowd, made up mostly of conservative Catholics, welcomed his criticism of “theologians who abuse their authority as teachers.”

I saw Ratzinger as an obstacle, a foe, and was disheartened when he was chosen to be pope in 2005. 

Pope Benedict: Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

On a Saturday morning in November 2007, I slipped in to a pew in Havana’s Santísima Trinidad Anglican Cathedral to reflect on the social teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The ecumenical lay education centre known as ISEBIT had welcomed Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba to speak to students. (Bonazzi would later serve as nuncio in Canada and is now the nuncio in Albania.) 

In the context of a class on International Development Cooperation, in which students had been debating issues of humanitarian aid, Don Luigi began his reflection based on Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).

With Don Luigi’s guidance, I found myself surprised and then intrigued by the pontiff’s approach. “Being Christian,” Benedict wrote in the opening to his encyclical, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

For Benedict, the heart of Christian faith is in the simple statement, “God is love.” There are many implications: from the nature of God (“God is love” / “Love alone is” / “love makes being” / “love remains”) to “ways to address needs that require love” and “the need of humans for the witness of Christian love that is inspired by faith” and “the charitable action of the church.” 

There is a complex challenge here to those of us who react to what we perceive to be simplistic acts of charity by proclaiming the need for justice. Justice, for Benedict (and Don Luigi), cannot be “over” love: but Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

At this point, various aspects of Catholic social teaching find their place: 

  • each person is understood within a community of people, overcoming the idea of enemy;
  • affirmation of the human person as subject, not object, not instrument; 
  • encouragement of people to participate passionately for the common good; 
  • the church does not seek power over the state, but to avoid that politics in the “polis” (city) becomes about power, not service; all of our ideas are needed so that the “polis” can function;
  • the church participates “partially” in political life for the sake of a just society.

A student asked about social justice. Don Luigi responded: “Given these commitments, the church participates truly in the building of a just society. It participates and cannot not participate.” 

When we truly love, we cannot help but get involved. 

Later, Pope Benedict would write Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), a 144-page encyclical that is mostly about our collective economic life (with digressions). Its essence is the “principle of gratuitousness” – that being itself is a divine gift, including economic life. “The market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons” as “economic subjects” who choose to trade goods and services of equivalent value. That, he says, involves trust and fraternity. The market used justly is an application of charity, which is the virtue Benedict believed to be at the core of all things, not “an added extra” tagged on with other activities.

This and other teachings prompted Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian who is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to praise Benedict’s embrace of “integral human development,” a phrase used decades earlier by Pope Paul VI. “To develop truly, authentically, people need to treat each other as the siblings we really are, freely and generously and openly,” he told the Globe and Mail after Benedict’s death Dec. 31.

But the debates won’t stop. Ratzinger’s leadership in the CDF failed to model ways of loving or of constructive theological dialogue. By the time of Benedict’s resignation in 2013, the Catholic Church had endured more than 35 years of top-heavy efforts to close the windows that had been opened by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). That Pope Francis has allowed some breezes to blow in dusty corridors is a sign of hope for those of us who still insist that God’s love is for ALL, that the powerful must be brought down from their thrones, and the poor lifted up (Luke 1:46-55).

Some of my 1984 articles focused on the gaps between Roman understanding of authority and Latin Americans’ perceptions of their own reality. Theological reflection followed action by people to transform their reality, and gave rise to questions of how churches should accompany the poor (and other marginalised groups) in their struggles for justice. (I have added the colour photos I took of people attending a mass celebrated in October 1984 by Pope John Paul II at a racetrack near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.)

Santo Domingo in October 1992: 500 years of resistance and the Canadian Ecumenical Presence

Left: The statue of Christopher Columbus (“Cristóbal Colón” in Spanish) that stands in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral today draws protests and calls for its removal.
Right: In May 1991, the Triennial Assembly of the Canadian Council of Churches (held in Camrose, Alta.) called on member churches to mark 1992 “as a year of reflection and repentance.”

by Jim Hodgson

As my penitential pilgrimage continued at a distance from that of Pope Francis, I found myself thinking increasingly of another pilgrimage. In October 1992, about 200 people joined the Canadian Ecumenical Presence (CEP) in Santo Domingo. As I could find almost nothing on the internet, I thought I should share something here. CEP became an ecumenical educational exposure experience beyond compare.

We were not yet using language of reconciliation – and indeed it may be premature still: much truth-telling still needed! – but we were wrestling with colonialism and its devastation in company with Indigenous people, descendants of enslaved peoples brought by force from Africa, and all people who struggle for liberation from contemporary colonialism that presents itself as globalized capitalism, indebtedness, human-trafficking and imperialism.

It all began on the back of an envelope. I met for lunch with two ecumenical friends: Joe Mihevc, then the Toronto animator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and Patti Talbot, then on the staff of the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministries. “The only paper we could find among the three of us to jot notes was an old envelope from my purse,” Patti recalled later.

Soon, we were joined by other friends: ecumenical activist and educator Betsy Anderson of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG); Suzanne Rumsey of LAWG and later the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA); Rosalee Bender who became our program staff coordinator; Juan Rivas, coordinator of the Dominican Republic Experience; and Joe Byrne from the Latin America Mission Program of the Diocese of Charlottetown. 

Glad Tidings, the magazine of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, ends its print existence in 2020.
Entre-nous was a newsletter of the Canadian Council of Churches in the early 1990s.

From the time of the first CEP plan, the one drawn on the back of an envelope in a cafeteria, it had been our hope to be able to serve religious media by providing a relatively inexpensive place to stay, helping reporters get access to major events, and accompanying them in encounters with Dominicans who were working for change. 

CEP participants who had media accreditation were able to attend some of the official CELAM events and news conferences. It was a question from a Mohawk radio producer, Eric Gabriel, that turned what might have been a series of carefully-staged news conferences into informative briefings: “Will the bishops’ conference apologize to native people, and if not, why not?” First, there was silence — a silence that is captured beautifully in the documentary which Vision-TV broadcast in December 1992. Then one of the bishops on the panel sputtered an incoherent and embarrassing response to this sensitive question. The fumble prompted the CELAM media office to plan a 90-minute briefing on the church’s role in Indigenous issues the following day, featuring clergy and lay people who were Indigenous or who worked with Indigenous people. A day later, a thorough briefing on the situation of women was offered.

Clockwise from top left: Bishop Julio Cabrera of Quiché diocese in Guatemala; Jim Hodgson (and no: I do not understand the hat), Eric Gabriel, Fr. Jerome Kelleher, Leslie Wirpsa (National Catholic Reporter); José Álvarez Icaza, National Centre for Social Communications (CENCOS), Mexico; Raúl Rosales, Diego de Medellín Ecumenical Centre, Chile; and Rita Deverell of Vision TV speaking with Manuel Casado, a medical doctor serving in the Capotillo barrio of Santo Domingo.

The church, systemic injustice, social sin and the “doctrine of discovery”

Left: America magazine, July 28. Right: CBC News, July 30.

by Jim Hodgson

Many people who heard the apologies offered by Pope Francis in Canada were disappointed that the apologies were worded in ways that expressed regret for the actions of certain people or “local Catholic institutions” – as if religious orders like the Oblates and Jesuits are not themselves global organizations.

Building on existing teaching, the apologies offered by Pope Francis could have gone further. 

As my personal penitential pilgrimage continued, I came across a forceful definition of “social sin” – relevant because of the Catholic Church’s reluctance to say something definitive, like: “the church erred,” rather than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), in paragraph 119, describes social sin this way: “The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin…. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual, and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light.”

The entire colonial project, including the residential schools, is grotesque interference in the “development of peoples.” (That phrase echoes the name of an influential 1967 encyclical by Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, inspirational to the creation of the many Catholic development organizations an in the formation of people like your scribe.)

Away back in 1984, Pope John Paul II and the bishops of the Dominican Republic were anticipating a grand celebration to be held in 1992 to mark the “discovery and evangelization of the New World” on the “Fifth Centenary” of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. 
I was present on Oct. 12, 1984, in a sports stadium in Santo Domingo when John Paul defended the church’s role in the European conquest. Even then, his words shocked and angered me. A “black reading” of history, he said, had focused attention on the violent and exploitive aspects of the time which followed what he repeatedly called “the discovery” of the Americas. 
Protest from within the church and across the hemisphere, especially from Indigenous and African-Americans, was immediate. By the time the 1992 events unfolded, John Paul came back to Santo Domingo to open a meeting of Latin American bishops (CELAM), but scaled back his participation in government-led celebrations.

He met with Indigenous and African American groups, and local media reported that he apologised. But careful reading of the texts show no apologies. To Indigenous people, he said: “There must be recognition of the abuses committed due to a lack of love on the part of some individuals who did not see their Indigenous brothers and sisters as children of God.” To African Americans, he repeated words he had used earlier in 1992 at Gorée, Senegal: “How can we forget the human lives destroyed by slavery? In all truth, this sin of man against man, of man against God, must be confessed.”
Right: I read everything I could about these debates in the mid-80s and early 90s. Part of my collection!

Pope Francis should also have addressed the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who works with the Religion News Service, wrote after the visit that the pope’s remarks in a news conference during the flight back to Rome revealed that he had not been properly briefed for the visit. Francis said he had not thought to use the term “genocide” to describe the effects of the Indian residential schools system, but agreed that it was “true.”

And he said he was confused by the phrase “doctrine of discovery.” He should have been briefed and been prepared to address the issue, persistently raised by Indigenous people because of the lasting legacy of 15th-century papal teaching. Even if those teachings were abrogated by Pope Paul III’s edict in 1537, their accumulated impact influenced U.S. and Canadian law and government policy. The TRC Call to Action 45 rejects the doctrine of discovery and calls for a new Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown that fully honours Nation-to-Nation principles.

To be fair, the doctrine-of-discovery phrase is not used as commonly in Latin America as in North America to describe the complicity of church and state in the subjection of the Indigenous peoples of the hemisphere. It doesn’t appear, for example, in a volume edited by philosopher-historian Enrique DusselThe Church in Latin America, 1492-1992 (Orbis, 1992) – although the various papal bulls (edicts) that gave rise to the concept are described. 

In my experience, what is talked about more are impacts of colonialism, the role of the colonial state in managing Christian missions (royal patronage, power to appoint bishops, etc.), and resistance exemplified by (among others) a 1511 homily by Antonio de Montesinos to settlers in Santo Domingo (“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery?”) or the first bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who argued for decades on behalf of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce the enslavement of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.

In Dussel’s introduction, he describes “the church of the poor” as already distinct from both the colonial church and the church of the criollos (descendants of Europeans born in the Americas). “There was not a single year in the seventeenth century that did not see a rebellion of natives, blacks or mestizos….” (p.7). The criollo-led independence movements of the early nineteenth century did not advance their liberation, and resistance continues to this day.

Next: Santo Domingo in October 1992: 500 years of resistance