Beliefnet
A year ago, after Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, many American Catholics who had gone to Rome to observe the conclave went home depressed (in part perhaps by the unseasonably chill and wet Roman spring). An American priest and editor was allegedly predicting that there would be a house cleaning in the American church. He seemed to know whom the new pope would clean out. Like the Lord High Executioner in the Mikado, he apparently had a little list.

I adopted the stand of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, once a colleague and friend of Cardinal Ratzinger, and then a bitter enemy. Kung offered wise advice that most people on both sides of the Catholic divide ignored. Give him time, said Professor Kung; suspend judgment and see what he does.

Today the division between the two polarized factions in the church continues. But those who were delighted are now displeased, and those who were discouraged are now cautiously hopeful. The new pope has managed to confound almost everyone as he strives for moderation and healing.

Media coverage during and after the conclave created a negative image of Papa Ratzinger--the "Panzer Cardinal," the "Hitler youth pope," the pope who condemned Harry Potter, the pope who fired the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, the Pope who banned gay men in seminaries. Most of these images were false. The instruction--not a doctrinal statement--on gays in seminaries did not say that they all should be banned, though it suited the interests of both the gays and the gay bashers to create that image. The comment on Harry Potter was in a private letter written years ago and not an official position.

A year after Benedict's election, the conservative Catholics are the ones who are angry. The pope has not repealed Vatican II, he has not imposed the old Latin Mass, he has not banned women from the liturgy, and he has defended Vatican II's statement on religious liberty.

Even the less drastic expectations of some conservatives have not been fulfilled. The priest and editor who is alleged to have predicted a “house cleaning” in the American church has recently written a hysterical and, some would say, disrespectful lament about the pope’s failures. His editorial seemed obsessed with the homosexual issue. He demanded that the pope resist his propensity not to hurt people’s feelings. The pope, he protested, has appointed bishops who are “soft” on homosexuality, has not clamped down on Jesuits who defend homosexuals, and has failed to make it clear that homosexuals cannot be priests.

Among the things the pope did was to reconcile with Kung, a powerful act of graciousness and humanity that moved some priests who knew both to tears. He has reached out to leaders of other faiths and religions. He has given wonderful little homilies in Roman parishes--without notes. He has defended religious liberty.

In his first encyclical “Deus Caritas Est”--a sensitive reflection on love, human and divine--the pope linked erotic love between man and woman to God’s love for humans. (This perspective dates back to St. Paul, though it has often been ignored.) There were no condemnations, no denunciations, only warmth, sympathy, and understanding. Moreover, the agony and the ecstasy of human love is a subject on which the huge middle majority of Catholics can readily agree.

On the basis of the record and not media images, Papa Benedetto seems to have chosen a course of moderation, a quiet time in which Catholics can listen carefully to the wisdom of their heritage as updated by the Vatican Council. The pope has not returned to the fiery liberalism of his youth. It does not seem likely that there will be change on hot-button issues like celibacy and the ordination of women. One might question the wisdom of such a strategy. But the blood purge which some wanted and others feared does not seem likely.

There remain serious problems--the apparent decline of the faith in Europe, the loss of credibility of the Church teachers especially on sexual matters, the shortage of priests, the bitter antagonism between church leaders and homosexuals, the persistence of the sexual abuse crisis.

Yet, if the pope’s goal has been to bind up wounds, he has made a good beginning.

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