The honeymoon was over before it began for the new Pope Benedict XVI.
Minutes after the conclave curtain lifted, the airwaves and internet were clogged with the new conventional wisdom-former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a hard-line extremist, a former Nazi, a sinister "grand inquisitor" who ratcheted the rack against all who dared debate his vision of the faith.
American Catholics, some warned, would vote with their feet-emptying the pews in "an accelerating exodus," as one commentator put it.
It's a frustrating caricature unworthy of a faithful servant of the Church.
The new pope is a gentle man with a humble sense of piety and devotion. He has written with great sensitivity about music and architecture-even collaborating on a book with the quintessential modernist painter, William Congdon. Despite what critics say, his vital interest isn't in punishing heretics but in the Christian liturgy and its power to bring people into communion with the living God.
Even in his work for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one would be hard-pressed to find the spiritual despot depicted in popular media accounts.
We're told that he wants to repress women in the Church and to relegate homosexuals to a spiritual and social ghetto. But his writings on such issues as women's ordination and homosexuality are reasonable and charitable, and always based on Scripture and the natural law. He has never advocated a personal opinion, only the settled teaching of the Church.
One may disagree with his logic or wish the Church would now change its teaching after 2,000 years. But surely it's a crass attempt at intellectual blackmail to label his teachings as bigotry or "hate speech."
We're told that the new pope is a triumphalist whose vision of the world has no room for other Christians or other world religions.
But again his writings belie this. He only affirms what the Church has always taught-that Jesus is who he said he is: the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to God but through him.
He has never said that non-Catholics can't find God or reach salvation. Indeed, he has written that the teachings of other religions can help their adherents become pure and pleasing to God. He believes however, as the Church does, that the graces given to men and women of whatever faith flow in a mysterious way from Christ's redemptive work on the cross.
Even a cursory review of his career shows a man intensely interested in the search for Christian unity and the Church's dialogue with world religions. Those who know his theological writings agree that few popes have matched his command and appreciation of the Hebrew scriptures and rabbinic tradition.
We're told that Cardinal Ratzinger stifled theological debate and "cracked down" on those who disagree with Church teaching. Actually, given his long tenure and his responsibility for a worldwide Church, the number of disciplinary cases he initiated is rather small.
His job, in effect, has been to ensure truth in advertising-that if somebody claims to be teaching in the name of the Church, that teaching should reflect the Church's true beliefs.
Defending the gospel against error is a grave responsibility the New Testament entrusts to each bishop. Christ called his gospel the truth that sets us free to love and achieve eternal life. If men and women don't hear this truth, they remain in slavery. If the "gospel" preached in Christ's name isn't the true gospel, their very souls are in danger.
It's because the stakes are so high that he has been so fervent in defending peoples' right to know what's truly Catholic and what isn't.
The keynote of Pope Benedict XVI's quarter-century in the Vatican has been his alarm at the worldwide slide into "relativism." Without shared beliefs and common values about how to live, human society becomes impossible, he has warned.
As he sees it, vast sectors of society no longer believe that God-given truths exist. Nothing is absolutely good or evil, true or false. What's true or good or beautiful depends on personal opinion-each one as valid as the next. Values are defined according to what's pleasing or useful to an individual at a given moment. The highest social value is portrayed as tolerance of others' opinions. In the area of religion it means that one belief is just as good as another: Jesus or Buddha, or your own personal savior-it's all pretty much the same.
The critics of Pope Benedict XVI are the shock troops of the "dictatorship of relativism" he described in his homily at the start of the conclave that elected him. The belief they find intolerable-and intolerant-is what the Church has always professed: that God has a definite plan for his Church and creation revealed through the teachings of Christ, and that God wants those who love him to believe those teachings and live in a special way.
The critics of Pope Benedict XVI don't have to defend their views because their beliefs mirror those of the nation's elite media. But that should give us all pause. Do we really want a Church that dances to the tune piped by secular multinational conglomerates with the power to create public opinion and impose it on others?
It's a measure of that power that coverage of the new pope's election was turned into a supposed referendum on a tiny canon of self-described "progressive" issues-birth control, priestly celibacy, women's ordination, and homosexual marriage.
One suspects that the agenda and vision of Pope Benedict XVI will be much broader.