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 www.envoymagazine.com, 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."

    Curran, who now teaches Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University after he was forced to leave Catholic University in 1986, says "many people in the Catholic Church were overly optimistic. There were expectations that were very unrealistic." And, Curran argues, it's not as if any new pope would have waved a wand and made the changes-optional celibate priesthood, relaxation of rules on divorce, permission to use birth control, for instance--that liberal Americans want.

    "You live with the tensions of the times," he says, "and I argue that change in the church always comes from underneath. The change will continue, from the ground up."

    Naturally, conservative Catholics are thrilled with the choice; they can now relax, content that the church will remain relatively unchanged for the foreseeable future.

    Helen Hull Hitchcock met Pope Benedict several times-first in 1999, when she presented him with a document called Affirmation for Catholic Women. Hitchcock says Pope Benedict will excel at the main papal job: "to preserve, protect and defend the church. This is something educated people in the West tend to forget-that the Catholic faith is not something that can be changed in its core teachings, that we can change our approaches and methods, but the faith itself is still abidingly, perennially true."

    There is no doubt Pope Benedict has every intention of defending the faith. In his Monday homily before the opening of the conclave he said: "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today's standards."

    The homily was considered a strong defense of traditional morality. Not surprisingly, it was also greeted with the condescending tone the media previously reserved for Ratzinger. Hitchcock says those who criticize him simply don't know him. "He's very diffident in his manner, almost shy," she says. "He makes a person feel at ease almost instantly. And that's something you'll see. It's been concealed up until now."

    Further, Hitchcock says, Ratzinger is a towering intellect who knows the church's problems, needs, and strengths. She says the fact that he is German will help the church in its dealings with Protestants, since Germany is where Protestantism was born in the 16th century, when Martin Luther rebelled against what he considered abuses by church hierarchy. "He's hardly unaware of the challenges posed by other Christian religions and certainly has very close ties to the conversations that have gone on ecumenically," Hitchcock says.

    Her confidence was seconded by none other than Bishop Mark Hanson, leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and head of the Lutheran World Federation, a global organization headquartered in Geneva. "I'm hopeful for Lutheran-Roman Catholic relationships under this papacy," Hanson says.

    Ratzinger's office was intimately involved in discussions culminating in the 1999 agreement between Lutherans and Catholics worldwide declaring that "justification by faith"-the theme driving the Protestant break with Rome for 500 years-is no longer a divisive issue between the two churches. "That was hugely significant," says Hanson, who met Pope John Paul II but has never met Ratzinger. "I look forward to an audience with him hopefully in the not-too-distant future."

    All is not happiness between Ratzinger and Protestants, however. The Rev. Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, has major concerns. "This new pope is known as the guardian of the church's doctrine," he says. "And of course we evangelicals are Protestants, so we celebrate areas where the Catholic Church upholds Bible-based doctrine--but our reservation is with the Catholic theologies that aren't Bible-based."

    Chief among those theologies for many Protestants was Dominus Iesus, ("Jesus is Lord") issued by Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document caused immediate controversy among many Protestants because it declared that Christianity "subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him." Many Protestants interpreted that language to mean the Catholic Church did not regard their churches as true. Ratzinger defended the document, countering that it restated the traditional Catholic position that Christ's church is a visible entity, in contrast with the Protestant position that it is an invisible ideal in which communities of believers participate.

    Haggard believes Pope John Paul II tried to issue something like an apology to evangelicals after Dominus Iesus was promulgated, by inviting evangelical leaders to Rome and by softening some of his public language.

    "Now that Ratzinger is the pontiff, it could potentially go the wrong direction," Haggard says. "We don't have confidence this pope understands the global nature of the church. We would have preferred a pope from the southern hemisphere, where the church is growing and vibrant and deals with evangelicals all the time."

    Haggard adds a big "however," softening the blow a bit: "We've had a warming relations with Catholics for the last 26 years, and we want that to continue. He's against relativism, and we're also allies in the areas of marriage, and being pro-life, and I think he'll continue those trends."

    But some Christian leaders who've worked closely with the Catholic Church for many years say they're beyond the point of diplomatic language. No surprise, Bishop John Shelby Spong, the liberal author and retired leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, is in this camp.

    "Ecumenical relations won't be any worse under this pope, and they've been pretty bad," Spong says. "My chief criticism of him is that he made it almost impossible for Catholic theologians to work in a creative atmosphere because they were constantly repressed. When you have the top creative thinkers being punished for pushing the boundaries, it takes the nerve away from a whole generation."

    In fact, Spong was so angry at the way Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger behaved toward theologian Hans Kung-a rising star theologian whom they exiled in 1979-that Spong publicly broke off relations with the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, then headed by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Soon after, Spong retaliated further by inviting Kung-whose sin was to question the idea of papal infallibility--to speak in his diocese.

    Today, McCarrick is the Cardinal of Washington-one of the men who sat in the Sistine Chapel conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger the new pope. Spong is retired, though still a popular and influential author. He's still annoyed with conservatives. And he still keeps a picture of Hans Kung on his desk.

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