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New Pope Acted as Theological Watchdog Under Predecessor


Pope Benedict XVI
In a remarkably brief conclave, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church chose as pope a Vatican insider who had been close to the late Pope John Paul II. His election is expected to cheer Catholic traditionalists.

The cardinals decided not to stray from the conservative legacy of Pope John Paul II by choosing as his successor a consummate Vatican insider who was the church's chief theological disciplinarian.

As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger was prefect, or head, of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with ensuring theological conformity, for nearly all of John Paul's 26-year papacy. Analysts say that as Pope Benedict XVI, he will likely continue Pope John Paul's move to centralize power in the Vatican.

Christopher Bellitto, a church historian who teaches at Kean University in New Jersey, says the election of Pope Benedict can be expected to draw a mixed reaction among American Catholics, where there are wide debates over issues like priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and contraception.

"I think that his election that quite frankly is going to be seen with distress by certain members, large contingents, of the American church who wanted to see more accountability, who wanted to see more collegiality, who wanted to see more relative independence,” said Mr. Bellitto. “I think that people are standing on their roofs and cheering who are of the more conservative, even traditionalist, bent. Unfortunately, I think we live in a divided country, and it appears that we live in a divided church as well."

Under the late Pope John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger was responsible for disciplining clergy who, in the Vatican's opinion, strayed too far from the path of orthodox thought. Although figures are guarded, it is believed that some 100 theologians were disciplined by Rome with punishments ranging up to banishment from teaching during Cardinal Ratzinger's tenure in the Congregation of the Faith.

Father Charles Curran was one of those theologians. In 1986 he was forced out of his position as professor of theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, because he was at odds with the official Vatican positions on issues related to sexuality. Now a professor of human values at Southern Methodist University, he admits to disappointment at the cardinals' selection of pope, and says the election of Benedict XVI is a sign that there will be no change from the orthodoxy of John Paul II.

"You'll continue to see actions taken against theologians. There will probably continue to be a heavy doctrinal orthodoxy imposed," he said.

But, Father Curran, adds, American Catholics were perhaps expecting too much from this papal election.

"Now, quite frankly, I think too many Americans were under the unrealistic understanding that some new pope would come in a change things,” he added. “Quite frankly, that was never going to happen, no matter who the pope was. You wouldn't find a dramatic change within year two or three or four. And I think the reason behind that is that the papacy and the church have always thought in terms of centuries."

But Monsignor Bryan Ferme, dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University, says people should not be hasty in assessing the new pope and his priorities.

"One of the things which I think is terribly important at the moment is for those people who often might have judged Cardinal Ratzinger in terms of what they've read in the press or listened to on the media, one of things I think they should do is start reading his books. He's a great academic and a profound theological thinker, to start reading his books and start listening very carefully as to the reasons as to why he states certain things," he said.

In electing the first Germanic pope in more than 1000 years, Monsignor Ferme says, the cardinals are demonstrating their deep concerns about the decline of the Catholic Church in Europe.

"I suspect that in the various problems that they considered as to the state of the church and the challenges that a new pope might have to face, I suspect that Europe, Western Europe, and the First World loomed rather largely in this whole question. And I suspect that Cardinal Ratzinger will direct quite a bit of his energy as pope to the problems of the church in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States and the developed world," he noted.

At 78, Pope Benedict is the oldest man elected pope in 275 years. Most analysts believe the cardinals are looking for a short pontificate after the long reign of John Paul II, and so age was a factor in the cardinals' deliberations. Christopher Bellitto says that means the next papal election will be far more fascinating.

"I'm fascinated by the age,” he said. “I was thinking a few weeks ago, and may have even said aloud, that this election is not interesting. The next election is much more interesting. And the next election, in my book, has just been made 10 times more interesting."

But even popes with short reigns can offer surprises. Angelo Roncalli was almost the same age as Joseph Ratzinger is now when he became Pope John XXIII in 1958. Yet, far from being a mere transitional figure, in his short five-year reign Pope John called a rare Vatican Council to reform the church. The Second Vatican Council dealt with issues such as liturgy, ecumenism, and the role of the laity and bishops. But, in the view of liberal Catholics, especially in the United States, it did not go far enough in implementing radical changes.

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