When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged from the papal conclave as Pope Benedict XVI, Martin Howser jumped for joy.
The Spokane resident immediately turned away from his TV and said a prayer of thanks.
“I was absolutely jubilant,” said Howser, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral. “This man will be firm, but kind. He’s going to be like John Paul II – unwavering, regardless of what people think. He will proclaim the truth of the church, loudly and clearly.”
Others in the area, however, had the opposite reaction. Some were disappointed, even troubled, that a cardinal described as a “hard-liner” and an “ultraconservative” – who has refused any discussion on a number of issues including women’s ordination and the celibacy of priests – will now be the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Fred and Sharon Tanner of Spokane were among many who were upset. “It shows that the hierarchy of the church is not in touch with the people of the church,” they wrote in an e-mail.
As members of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics whose goals include supporting victims of clergy sexual abuse and involving the laity in church governance, the Tanners hope that Benedict XVI will serve as a transitional pope and that the cardinals will eventually choose someone “more in tune with the needs of the modern-day church.”
That’s certainly a possibility, given the fact that the new pope is 78 and likely will not have the decades-long pontificate that Catholics experienced under John Paul II. Still, American Catholics who desire more dialogue on birth control, women’s ordination and other issues had hoped that the church would change its course.
By picking Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals and John Paul II’s right-hand man, the cardinals have endorsed the status quo, said Pat McCormick, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga University.
This decision could further alienate more progressive Catholics, creating a schism among American Catholics.
“I’m amazed, saddened mostly, that they made this choice,” said McCormick. “The vast majority of Catholic theologians will be disappointed with this choice. Certainly, Catholic feminists will be disheartened. … (Ratzinger) is not a friend of women, theologians, gays and lesbians.”
As the decades-long head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the new pope has been the enforcer and perhaps the architect of John Paul II’s conservative policies, McCormick said. It’s believed that Benedict is even more conservative than the late pontiff.
Steve Blewett, a lay minister at Our Lady of Fatima, is concerned that the new pope “will take a fundamentalist and authoritarian approach that will be more likely to divide than to bring the people of God together.”
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphasized that the new pope has been sensitive to the issues affecting the American church and that he is a leader “who will stand up for unity and reconciliation.”
“I have found him to be a man of great humility, keen intellect and a good listener, with a fine sense of humor,” said Skylstad, who had many interactions with the new pope when Ratzinger was still the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
During a news conference at the chancery, the bishop praised Benedict’s academic background, his intellectual curiosity, his commitment to the church. He expressed “great joy” at Ratzinger’s election, offering his congratulations and prayers on behalf of the Diocese of Spokane.
As president of the American bishops, Skylstad will have regular meetings with Benedict. In fact, Skylstad may fly to Rome to attend the new pope’s installation this weekend.
“Over the years, he has repeatedly demonstrated sensitivity to the specific situations and issues faced by the Catholic Church in the United States,” said Skylstad, who cited Ratzinger’s response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in this country as an example of his support for the American church.
Members of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, however, didn’t share Skylstad’s admiration for the new pope. “It’s a very sad day for us,” said Michael Ross, one of the co-founders. “It’s just a complete continuation of ignoring the victims. We will be shut out of the process of healing.”
It’s human nature for people to have differing opinions on the new pope, just as they would have strong feelings about candidates during a presidential election, acknowledged Skylstad.
Mark Laiminger, a member of St. Anthony’s in north Spokane, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the new pope and his orthodox views will cause people to leave the Catholic Church, but “that’s their choice,” he said.
Laiminger believes Benedict will be a fierce protector of church teachings, which is just what the American church needs. “I’m thrilled he’s pope and I look forward to the future under his leadership,” he said.
Although Ratzinger wasn’t her first choice for pope, Joy Milos said she will wait and see what Benedict will do as the church’s new pontiff. “Someone always has the option of beginning anew once they’re in office,” said Milos, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga and a sister who belongs to the order of Saint Joseph of Carondelet.
However, “if there aren’t further signs of affirmation, inclusion, understanding of the experience of women in the world, including the poorest women in the world, this will be a sad time in the history of the church,” she said.
Although the role of pope is very public and influential, Milos said she doesn’t pin all her hopes on any one person when it comes to addressing such complicated and pressing issues such as women’s concerns, global poverty and global injustices. As the reforms of Vatican II pointed out, all this is the “shared responsibility of every believer,” she said.
“I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit can lead the church to better times, but God works through human beings, and we too often choose to hear what we want to hear rather than what God intended,” wrote Blewett, pointing out how the Catholic Church has faced numerous challenges throughout the years.
“We can only pray that our new pope is genuinely touched by the hand of God.”