For a couple decades now, liberals taking shots at the Vatican would telegraph their disgust with one word--Ratzinger. That sour puss German Inquisition meister. Prince of the New Dark Ages. Torquemada of the 21st century. God's Rottweiler.

Today, however, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI. Divided throughout John Paul II's papacy, Catholics worldwide seem to be on the verge of flat-out polarization.

Since 1981, Ratzinger has served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-the Vatican department once called the Office of Inquisition. In that job Ratzinger maintained strict discipline on church doctrine, excommunicating and silencing dissenters. He's been the driving force behind the Vatican's crackdowns on liberation theology, religious pluralism, challenges to traditional moral teachings on issues such as homosexuality, and dissent on women's ordination.

Conservatives are thrilled. "I share the elation and profound encouragement of untold millions of other Catholics around the world today at the news of the election of Pope Benedict XVI," says Patrick Madrid, editor of the Catholic journal, and host of four Eternal Word Television Network series. "This decision by the cardinals, and coming so quickly, is a clear and decisive message that absolute truth is real and it matters and the Church's duty is to uphold and proclaim it."

Yet the the idea of a "Papa Ratzinger" makes many other American Catholics cringe, particularly liberals who see a Ratzinger papacy in apocalyptic terms. "What this says to American Catholics is quite striking: it's not just a disagreement, it's a full-scale assault," writes Andrew Sullivan. "There is simply no other figure more extreme than the new Pope on the issues that divide the Church. No one."

Beliefnet members also weighed in. "I, for one, am overjoyed with this selection," wrote member Morah. "Maybe he isn't as charismatic as Pope John Paul the Great, but he is definitely as Orthodox." Member sildeguru had the opposite reaction: "I am so terrified for the future of the church. I'll just have to wait and see with the rest, but this makes me as black as can be."

While there are certainly Catholics "weeping for joy" over Ratzinger's elevation-and even Ratzinger Fan Club websites-there are also accusations afloat that Ratzinger was a Nazi. (In fact, he was a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth.)

Why do liberals hate him so? Here are some reasons:

  • When he arrived at the Vatican in 1981, he first turned his attention to "liberation theology" popular in Latin America, ordering the one-year silencing in 1985 of Brazilian friar Leonardo Boff, whose writings were attacked for using Marxist ideas.
  • In 1986 he issued a denunciation of homosexuality and gay marriage, calling it an "intrinsic moral evil."
  • In the 1990s he brought pressure against theologians, mostly in Asia, who saw non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity.
  • In 1998, Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn., destroyed 1,300 copies of 'Women at the Altar' on orders from Ratzinger due to objection of book's encouragement of women as Catholic priests.
  • In 2000, his office issued Dominus Iesus, aimed at restating the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church against the more inclusive views in Asia. The document seemed to brand non-Catholic Christian denominations as deficient, leading to an outcry among liberal Catholics and many Protestants.
  • In 2002, he excommunicated seven women who underwent an illegal ordination ceremony.
  • In a 2004 document he denounced "radical feminism" as an ideology that undermined the family and obscured the natural differences between men and women.

  • Last summer, he told American bishops that Communion must be denied to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion. While never mentioning Sen. John Kerry by name, the memo implicitly aimed at the pro-choice Catholic presidential candidate.

    So on Tuesday, when Pope Benedict came to the window at St. Peter's Square after the announcement, many interpreted the less-than fulsome response in St.
    Peter's Square-at least, compared to that of John Paul II--as muted shock. He clasped his hands and smiled--barely. Warm applause followed but was not sustained.
  • Why would the cardinals pick this guy-and so quickly? Why not go with a friendly Italian, or a trendy African or Latin American, as many people had speculated? Father Charles Curran, one of the theologians silenced by then-Cardinal Ratzinger for questioning church doctrine on contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, said Pope Benedict is "obviously just an interim."