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.

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.

You're not the only person who might be surprised by your response. After all, you were one of the sharpest critics of John Paul II, whom Ratzinger served as chief theological adviser...
Well, yes, there is obviously a discrepancy between my respect for Ratzinger and my total disagreement with John Paul II. I asked myself this question earlier-why on earth have I always liked Ratzinger, for more than 51 years, while over the past 26 years John Paul II constantly got on my nerves? I confess I'm not sure I know the answer.

Let's back up. When did you first meet Ratzinger?
We were doctoral students together at the University of Munich in 1953 and 1954, which was the first time a woman was allowed to get a doctorate in Catholic theology. And our respect for each other deepened when we had to defend our theses in Latin. In preparation, we translated our theses together from German into Latin.

"Ratzinger has much more of what the French call esprit de finesse. And John Paul II had none!"

What was the new pope like as a theology student?
He was very intelligent. He was the star student-the star-male student; there were very few female students-and we all admired his intelligence. But there was something more about him I admired. He was a rather shy student, not obsessed with his ego. I liked his humble intelligence. I still do like many passages in his books, and I've quoted them in my books. And all my life, many people have been astonished that I've always sort of defended Ratzinger, even though I've said that many of his opinions are totally wrong.

Was he theologically conservative as a student?
Well, when I studied theology I was a sheep. I believed everything I was taught, and Ratzinger, of course, did as well. But soon he became a very progressive theologian. And at the Second Vatican Council he served as the theological adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, a very beloved and progressive voice, along with Karl Rahner and others. Ratzinger was chosen because of his modern perspective.

But under John Paul II, the repression of women and a kind of anti-sexual pessimism reached it highest peak, and Ratzinger didn't protest this in any way. I still can't quite figure it out.