Your Holiness, the names of Karol Wojtyła and Joseph Ratzinger are connected to the Second Vatican Council in a number of ways. Did you already meet him during the Council?
Benedict XVI: The first deliberate encounter between Cardinal Wojtyła and myself took place during the conclave in which John Paul I was elected. During the Council we had indeed both worked on the Constitution on the “Church in the modern world”, but obviously in different sections, so that we did not meet each other. During the visit of the Polish bishops to Germany (September 1978) I was the personal representative of John Paul I in Ecuador: the Church of München-Freising has a sponsorship bond with the Church in Ecuador, which was established by Archbishop Echeverría Ruiz (Guayaquil) and Cardinal Döpfner. So, to my great regret, I had to miss the opportunity to personally meet the archbishop of Kraków. Of course I had heard about his philosophical and pastoral works and had long wanted to get to know him. On his part, Wojtyła had read my “Introduction to Christianity”, and had also quoted from it in the retreat which he had preached for Paul VI and the Curia in Lent of 1976. So we had both simultaneously been looking forward to a meeting. From the very start I have had a very great appreciation and heartfelt sympathy for the Metropolitan of Kraków. During the pre-conclave of 1978 he had impressively analysed the nature of Marxism for us. Above all I strongly felt his human charisma and his prayerful attitude, how deeply he was connected to God.
What were your feelings when John Paul II called on you to entrust you with the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Benedict XVI: John Paul II had already called on me in 1979, to appoint me as the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. My ordination as a bishop in Munich was only two years ago, and I thought it would be impossible to leave the seat of Saint Corbinian so soon again. The ordination was in a way a promise of fidelity to my home diocese. So I asked the Pope to refrain from this appointment. He had then asked Cardinal Baum of Washington to take this position, but at the same time he announced that he would be coming to me later with another assignment. It was probably in the course of the year 1980, that he told me that he would appoint me as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith towards the end of 1981, as successor of Cardinal Šeper. Since I still felt bound to me home diocese I allowed myself to name a condition for the appointment, a condition which I considered to be impossible. I said that I felt obliged to continue publishing theological works. I would only be able to say yes when this was compatible with the office of Prefect. The Pope, who has Always been very kind and indulgent towards me, told me that he would inquire about this question and form an opinion. During a subsequent visit he declared that theological publications were compatible with the office of Prefect. Cardinal Garrone had also published theological works as Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. And so I accepted the appointment, aware of the magnitude of the task, but also aware that my yes only required obedience to the Pope.
Can you tell us what the cooperation between you and John Paul II was like?
Benedict VI: The cooperation with the Holy Father was always marked by friendship and trust. Above all, it there were two levels in it – the official and the private. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had an audience with the Pope on every Friday at 6 o’clock and there present him with the collected issues that need a decision. In the first place, of course, these were doctrinal issues, but also disciplinary question – the laicisation of priest who had requested so, awarding the Pauline privilege to married couples of which one partner was not a Christian, and so on. Later the ongoing work on the Catechism of the Catholic Church was added to that. The Holy Father Always received the required documentation and therefore already knew the questions to be discussed. In that way we always fruitfully discussed the theological problems together. The Pope was very well-read, including in the latest German literature, and it was – probably for both sides – always good to search for the right decision in these matters together.
Next to these official contact there were several sorts of meetings which were neither fully official, nor personal. I would call half official the audiences in which, for several years, the Wednesday catecheses were discussed in the early afternoon on Tuesday, in groups of various compositions. The Pope had decided to offer, over the course of time, a Catechism through the catecheses: he suggested the topics and had some first considerations prepared. Since there were always several specialist present, these were very beautiful and educational conversations, which I recall fondly. Here too, the theological expertise of the Pope showed. At the same time I admired his willingness to learn.
Lastly, the Pope had the habit to invite the bishops who were on their ad limina visit, but also other groups of bishops and priest, varying depending on circumstances, to lunch. These were certainly always working lunches were a theological topic was often suggested. A preliminary final version was given, which we discussed during these meals and prepared for a final version. Later, a variety of topics were discussed. Through the large number of those present the conversation was always very broad. But there was also always room for humour. The Pope loved to laugh and so the working dinners, in all their seriousness, occasion for joyful togetherness.
What were the doctrinal challenges you encountered, together with Pope John Paul II, while you were in office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Benedict XVI: The first great challenge we came across, was the liberation theology which was spreading in Latin America. The general opinion about it, both in Europe and in North America, was: it is about helping the poor and it is therefore something which we can only agree with. But this is an error. Certainly, poverty and the poor were the theme of liberation theology, but in a very specific perspective. Direct aid to the poor, reforms which would improve their situation were judged to be reformist, acting to stabilise the system: they dampen – so they said – the anger and indignation which were necessary for the revolutionary transformation of the systems. It was not about direct aid or reforms, but about a great revolution which would usher in a new world. The Christian faith was used as the engine for this revolutionary movement and is so converted into a political power. The religious traditions of the faith serve political action. The faith then becomes deeply estranged from itself, and the true love for the poor also becomes dulled. Of course these ideas appear in various forms and they are not always fully present, but the general movement is in this direction. This falsification of the Christian faith – especially to the poor and the service that is their due – was to be opposed. On the basis of the experiences of his Polish homeland, Pope John Paul II shone a decisive light on this. One the one hand he had experienced the slavery of the Marxist ideology, which liberation theology had adopted. So it was clear ti him from painful personal experience, that this type of “liberation” needed to be opposed. On the other hand he had just seen in the situation in his homeland, that the Church really has to work for freedom and liberation – not in a political way, but by the fact that through faith it awakens in people the forces of true liberation. The Pope instructed us to speak about both: on the one hand to unmask a false idea of liberation, and on the other hand to present the true calling of the Church to liberate the people. That is what we tried to say in both instructions about liberation theology, which stand at the beginning of my work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A major problem for our work in the years that I was Prefect, is the struggle for a correct understanding of ecumenism. Here too, we are dealing with a dual situation: on the one hand there is the assignment to establish unity with all haste and to open the ways that lead towards it. On the other hand false visions of unity, which want to open a shortcut to unity of faith by diluting that faith, must be rejected. In this context texts about several aspects of ecumenism were published. The document “Dominus Iesus” (2000), which summarises the essential elements of the Catholic faith, caused the most excitement.
A central topic remains the conversation of religions with one another, about which we were only able to devote a few minor texts, however. We tried to build up slowly to this question, mainly through conversations with theologians and with bishops’ conferences. Important above all was our encounter with the doctrinal commissions of the Asian countries in Hong Kong. The question will certainly remain a major challenge for a long time to come.
Our part in the preparation of the encyclical of the Holy Father on the problems of moral theology, “Veritatis Splendor”, eventually formed a great challenge.
Finally, we also discussed the question of the nature and mission of theology in our time. Science and Church affiliation generally seem to be a contradiction today. Nevertheless, theology can only exist in and with the Church. On this question we published an instruction.