Wednesday, April 20, 2005

New Pope's Ex-Students Express Skepticism

TUEBINGEN, Germany - In the cafeteria at Tuebingen University's theology department, students swapping lecture notes on a rainy Wednesday weren't preoccupied by their looming exams.

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Instead, they were concerned about where their school's most famous former professor would take the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Benedict XVI. And they didn't exude optimism.

"It's going to be interesting to see what he does," said Thomas Burchard, a 20-year-old Protestant studying for the ministry. "He's very conservative and, like the Catholic Church, he goes against what the Bible says."

Fellow student Simon Reinitz, clad in black, his hair long and a stud piercing his left eyebrow, declared that Ratzinger was a caretaker pope, nothing more.

"Why not an African pope? Why not a Latin American pope? The church will make changes," Reinitz said. "This is just someone to hold over the conservatives."

Students and faculty at Tuebingen remain skeptical of Ratzinger, who left in 1969 partly out of disenchantment with the Marxist enthusiasm then sweeping the campus. The university remains the outstanding center of liberal theological study in Germany, and trains both Roman Catholics and Protestants.

They are proud that a former professor has gone to such great heights, but criticize his actions as the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy. Those include decrees that many blame for barring priests from counseling pregnant teens about options including abortion and blocking German Catholics from sharing Communion with Lutherans.

Even the pontiff's former assistant, Bernd Jochen Hilberath, responded cautiously to his former teacher's elevation. Hilberath, who holds the same chair that Ratzinger once held, said the world's Catholics and other Christians are on edge, waiting to see if the papacy will change him.

"Joseph Ratzinger is a multidimensional person. He's not one-sided, but he has potential, it depends on his circle of advisers," Hilberath said.

While critics contend that the choice of the 78-year-old Ratzinger may signal a caretaker papacy, Hilberath said it is possible the German pontiff may surprise them as he tackles the tough issues of abortion, the church's ban on contraception, the sex abuse scandals and the ordination of women.

"He's informed about the issues, the facts, the history," he said, careful to note that only the pontiff himself knows what he is thinking. "We hope that the pope is a pope who regards the perspectives of the Gospels, but is also helpful to people in contemporary life."

Ratzinger had a few things to say about Tuebingen as well in his memoirs. He departed after left-wing student upheavals rocked the campus, and his classes were at one point interrupted by sit-ins.

"The Marxist revolution ignited the entire university, it shook its foundations," he wrote in his memoirs. "Hope remained, but into the place of God stepped the party and with it a totalitarianism of atheist worship, which is ready to sacrifice all of humanity to its false god."

Hoping to escape the endless disruption and confrontation, and wanting to be closer to his brother, Georg, Ratzinger left Tuebingen for the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria.

In a statement Tuesday, Tuebingen's most famous scholar, the controversial Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, called Ratzinger's election "an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope."

Kueng, who has lost his official license to teach Catholic theology but continues to teach anyway, was the one who urged the theology department to hire Ratzinger, who later criticized his writings.

He has said that at the time he perceived Ratzinger as more moderate than he was during his years in the Vatican. Several of Ratzinger's students at Regensburg have described him as open to other people's ideas and eager for wide-ranging discussion.


That has inspired hope that Pope Benedict may be different from Cardinal Ratzinger.

"But we must wait and see, for experience shows that the papacy in the Catholic Church today is such a challenge that it can change anyone," Kueng wrote. "Let us therefore give him a chance: as with a president of the USA we should allow a pope 100 days to learn."

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