Aspen psychiatrist recalls Pope Benedict as a teacher |

Aspen psychiatrist recalls Pope Benedict as a teacher

Eben Harrell
Dr. Joel Brence of Aspen said the Second Vatican Council had a large impact on Pope Benedict XlV. Aspen Times photo/Jim Noelker.

When the white smoke billowed from the Vatican and the bells chimed over Rome, one Aspen resident waited with the world to learn the name of the new Pope. But for Dr. Joel Brence, a local psychiatrist, the name Joseph Ratzinger had personal connotations. Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, taught Brence theology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany from 1967-1969.It was an influential time in both men’s lives. Brence was on his way to the priesthood before a book by Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung sidetracked him into medicine and psychiatry. Ratzinger was a young reformer, one of many progressive theologians in the 1960s. He arrived at the university on the tailwind of the Second Vatican Council, which had led to the near-revolutionary modernization of the church.But the student revolts that transpired across Europe in 1968, including at Tuebingen, scared Ratzinger with their excess; many believe them responsible for Ratzinger’s turn to the conservative, orthodox thinking that came to characterize his career as a cardinal in Rome.Yesterday afternoon, Brence, a Catholic, discussed memories of his time with his former teacher – and current pope.Can you talk about the atmosphere at Tuebingen while you studied there with Ratzinger?

It was the time when the student protests of the late 1960s were in full gear. It was during Vietnam. There were times when – and this was particularly painful for Ratzinger – students charged into his lectures and demanded he answer their questions.Having come from a Nazi past himself – he grew up in wartime Germany – that’s what he saw. He saw Nazi red. He felt, “Oh my God, it’s happening all over again.” It wasn’t the totalitarianism of the right; it was the totalitarianism of the left. But it was totalitarianism all the same.So he felt the answer was that the church, and its piety and orthodoxy, could be the bulwark against such human corruption?That’s right. When I look back, it must have been a huge time of change for him. Tuebingen was the top of the mountain as far as academic theology. All the big names were there. But he left to go to the University of Regensburg, which was really the academic backwaters of Germany. It could have been seen as a step backward, but I think he realized he was heading in the wrong direction at Tuebingen to begin with.And the right direction was to join the establishment of the church?I think this is where a saving idea came. At Tuebingen, he was always playing second fiddle to another theologian, Hans Kung. Kung was the big name. He got all the best students, published the biggest papers. He was the big reformer, too. So the only way he might have been able to bypass this competition was to ally himself with the hierarchy and the official teaching authority of the church. In that way he goes from being just another theologian to being part of the establishment at the top of the totem pole. This allowed him to launch a career in the ecclesiastical realm.

It sounds like you think his shift to the church was more careerism than a spiritual decision.I don’t have a way to read a person’s soul. His critics will point to careerism, but his supporters will say he was trying to protect the faith of simple people from the onslaught of academic theologians, who, with all their questions and writings, were threatening the faith of the little people. Who knows for sure?What are your memories of the man?Well, Kung was the alpha male at the time. He drove an Alpha Romeo around campus and was easily recognized. Ratzinger was the opposite. He puttered around on his bicycle. He drank lemonade, not wine. He was very meticulous, scripted and controlled. There was never a paper out of place on his desk. He never deviated from his lectern during lectures. Ratzinger lived with his oldest sister at the time. She had a very pious, simple faith. So when he talked about protecting faith of simple people, I think he had her in mind. As a theologian and musician – he’s also a classical pianist – he existed mainly between the ears. The deeper centers of his being, like his heart and guts, tended to get shortchanged in such a cerebral, German professor.

How can Aspen’s liberal Catholics, who may support birth control, gay rights, even abortion, accept such a deeply conservative pope?There’s a lot of talk about how the church has to apologize for mistakes in the past. But I think it might be time for the church to give an apology to women. They are the forgotten element in the church. They are given positions, but it’s handmaidens to the lord. The feminine element has to be reckoned with.How do you feel about Ratzinger becoming pope?Ratzinger now holds this view that the secular world is suspect, if not evil. Secularism relativism, feminism – to him these are all the evils of our time. But I don’t see secularism as responsible for the bloodshed going on right now. I think fundamentalism is what’s responsible. To become more fundamentalist as a church will just draw equal reactions from fundamentalists on the other side.But it wasn’t always like that for Ratzinger. I can’t believe you can just put Vatican II behind you. What lured us as students to him was this feeling that he had some sort of secret he hid from us. Perhaps the secret was the secret of his genius, which may only be revealed now, in his pontificate. Ratzinger had a favorite passage in Genesis in which Jacob wrestles with an unknown being. He saw the image of man wrestling with God and saw man trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible tenets of his own faith. Vatican II was our big bang. And its impact is still playing out. Our pope is still wrestling with who he wants to become.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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