DALLAS – In 24 years as Pope John Paul II’s uncompromising defender of church doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger established himself as one of the most conservative figures in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Church faithful and experts turned to that record on Tuesday as they searched for clues as to where Ratzinger intends to lead Catholics as the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. Conservatives found cause for reassurance, while liberals reacted with alarm.
“He’s certainly a person who can be expected to carry out the general theological and ecclesiastical agenda of John Paul II,” said the Rev. James A. Martin, a Jesuit priest who is associate editor of the Catholic weekly America. “Parts of the U.S. church hoping for a dialogue on some contentious issues might want to table those hopes.”
With Ratzinger as head enforcer of church doctrine, the Vatican quashed efforts to liberalize church teachings against divorce, birth control, abortion and homosexuality. Because of his advanced age – he turned 78 on Saturday – the new pope is being described by many experts as a transitional leader. But his past performance suggests that he won’t merely keep the seat warm for his successor, experts said.
In a National Catholic Reporter newspaper commentary last week, writer John L. Allen Jr. suggested that the former German cardinal’s papacy would unfold along “predictable lines,” with some twists.
“Ratzinger would mount a strenuous defense of Catholic identity, resisting enticements from secular culture to water down church teaching and practice,” wrote Allen, the author of a critical biography of Ratzinger. “He would stress ‘Culture of Life’ issues, doing battle against gay marriage, euthanasia and stem cell research; he would ensure that theological speculation is contained within narrow limits.”
At the same time, Ratzinger’s writings suggest that “the Vatican would be less likely to expend resources” to preserve the Catholic identity of some church-affiliated universities, social service centers and other institutions, said Allen. But friends and critics alike expect Ratzinger to hew closely to the positions of Pope John Paul II on major issues facing the church. These include doctrinal debates over abortion, divorce, gay rights and the role of women, as well as the Vatican’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis and the shortage of priests in the United States and Europe.
“This is obviously a sign that the papacy will continue in the same general way as the papacy of Pope John Paul II,” the Rev. Charles Curran, who teaches theology at Southern Methodist University, said in a statement. “I think many Catholics in the United States were unrealistic about what might happen in this papal election. No new pope was going to dramatically change church teaching or discipline in the beginning of a new papacy.”
Curran was forced to leave Washington, D.C.’s, Catholic University in the 1980s because his more liberal views on divorce, birth control, abortion and homosexuality were at odds with the Vatican’s. Ratzinger wrote the letter barring him for teaching theology at the university.
Polls show that a majority of U.S. Catholics disagree with the conservative positions of Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger on issues such as divorce, allowing priests to marry and ordination of women.
But those dissenting views aren’t likely to have a favorable hearing during a Ratzinger papacy, experts said. In fact, Ratzinger condemned such theological “relativism” in a speech before the College of Cardinals earlier this week.
“He made it clear the church should stand up to the forces of the modern world rather than cave in to them,” said Dr. Matthew Ogilvie, professor of theology at the University of Dallas, a small liberal arts Catholic institution.
While many liberal Catholics didn’t hide their disappointment in the choice of Ratzinger, Ogilvie said Ratzinger was being judged too harshly for his work as the Vatican’s disciplinarian under John Paul II.
“The reason a lot of liberals are groaning is they’ve only known him when he has to step in when something goes wrong,” Ogilvie said. “Now that he’s pope, he’ll be there to deliver good news and bad news alike.”
Vatican officials make the same point.
“A person who is in charge of maintaining the authenticity of the faith will naturally have to make judgments, some of which will be unacceptable to some people,” said the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, who as undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was third in command behind Ratzinger.
Some Catholics and Vatican experts speculated that Ratzinger signaled a more moderate papacy by his choice of names: Benedict. His namesake, Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, relaxed the campaign against doctrinal “modernism” waged by his predecessor, Pius X.