'A Humble Intellect'

Controversial German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann explains why she's glad that her former classmate has been made pope.

Like many, I was stunned to learn yesterday that Cardinal Ratzinger, the great Enforcer of church doctrine, had been elected pope. Once the shock wore off, one of my first thoughts was, "What does Uta make of all this?"

By Uta, I'm referring to German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann-one of Pope John Paul II's most outspoken critics. She had also been a classmate of Joseph Ratzinger's, when they were doctoral students together at the University of Munich in the early 1950s.

The daughter of the late Gustav Heinemann, president of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, Uta went on to become the world's first woman professor of Catholic theology when she was given a church-appointed chair at the University of Essen. She also became the bestselling author of several controversial books, including "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" and "Putting Away Childish Things," both of which sold millions of copies around the world. In 1987, the church declared Uta ineligible to teach, after she declared the virgin birth to be a theological belief and not a biological fact. She still holds a chair in religious studies at Essen-a state chair.

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, of course, did not run afoul of the church, which is one reason why he is now the pope and Uta Ranke-Heinemann is not.

I thought of Uta yesterday because--to make a long story short--I met her in April 1994 when I was working for Harper San Francisco, which had just published "Putting Away Childish Things." Harper had organized a U.S. book tour for Uta, two days into which she claimed to have suffered a "nervous breakdown" and threatened to cancel the tour unless someone was sent to escort her from city to city. I was put on a plane the following day. Over the next two weeks, I heard a great deal about Pope John Paul II (little of it good)--and about Cardinal Ratzinger, of whom she spoke highly.

I reached Uta, now 77, by phone late last night at her home in Essen, Germany. We spoke for more than an hour. Here's some of what she had to say about the new pope.

What was your reaction when you learned that Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected?

I never in my life would have imagined that I would be happy over the election of a new pope. But I am happy for Cardinal Ratzinger--or, I should say Pope Benedict XVI--because we have had a long-standing mutual respect for one another.

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