Tuesday, April 19, 2005


[I have just written this for Ekklesia. The new Pope was elected two hours ago. It is difficult to feel any great sense of enthiusiasm, and easy to feel something to the contrary. Since a European was chosen it is sad -- but predictable -- that Cardinals Daneels and Kasper should have been overlooked.]

In a move set to cheer Catholic hardliners and dismay reformers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aged 78, was this evening elected by the college of Cardinals to succeed the late Pope John Paul II. He is already being talked about as a transitional figure as the Church absorbs the legacy of the longest Pontificate of the twentieth century.

Cardinal Ratzinger, from Traunstein in Germany, has chosen the name Benedict XVI. He is the first German Pope since Victor II, bishop of Eichstatt, who reigned from 1055-57.

The new Pontiff was immediately greeted with relief and enthusiasm by the large crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

It was one of the fastest elections over the past hundred years: Pope Pius XII was elected in 1939 in three ballots on one day, while Pope John Paul I was elected in 1978 in four ballots in one day. The new pope was chosen after either four or five ballots over just two days.

Ratzinger, now Benedict, has long been seen as the real power behind the papal throne. He worked directly for his predecessor from 1981.

John Paul II travelled widely (making over one hundred international visits) and was content to build up a strong bureaucracy in the Vatican – often to the discontent of bishops and ordinary Catholics around the world, who saw it as a source of intrigue, politicking and obduracy.

The new Pope is seen as a hardliner, but when he played a major role in the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) he was actually a modernizer. Vatican watchers say that his influence in recent years has come by mediating between other powerful figures.

Coming from the same generation as Pope John Paul II, the now Pope Benedict similarly struggled with rapid change in the modern world, and came to see retrenchment rather than revision as the way forward.

Controversy followed Ratzinger closely in his time as head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the inquisition. The Cardinal was obstinate in his opposition to liberation theology, to radical lay movements (like ‘We are Church’ in Europe and base ecclesial communities in the developing world).

He also pursued bitter doctrinal vendettas against key dissenting theologians, including Leonardo Boff and Tissa Balasuriya in Brazil and Sri Lanka respectively. Both were poorly treated in investigations which amounted to one-sided trials, according to many observers.

Boff’s mistake was to question the power and ethics of the church itself, and the contradiction between this and its message of justice and peace, in his book ‘Church, Charism and Power’. He said that the Holy Spirit was reinventing the Church from the grassroots, but the guardians of the institution had different ideas.

Talented and sensitive theologians who explored the relationship between Christian faith, inter-faith relations and post-modern culture also felt the wrath of the sacred Congregation and of the German Cardinal.

They included Jacques Dupuis, who died sad and lonely as a result of his rejection for work on the theology of religions which is hailed as groundbreaking and deeply faithful by many fellow scholars in the Catholic world and beyond.

Roger Haight, also a Jesuit, and considered one of the Church’s most brilliant minds, has also been condemned recently. He is an expert in philosophy and Christology, the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI is certain to continue with the conservative policies of the Curia on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and the refusal of women’s ordination as either deacons or priests.

However, some are tonight saying that Ratzinger’s choice of name may indicate some measure of conciliation towards those who disagree with him. This is because he has chosen the successor appellation to a Pope who succeeded a hardliner with a more moderate tone.

Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, followed Pius X, who had implemented a sharp crackdown against doctrinal "modernism." He reigned during World War I and was credited with settling animosity between traditionalists and reformers, He dreamed of reunion with Orthodox Christians.

Benedict, which comes from the Latin for "blessing," is one of a number of papal names of holy origin such as Clement ("mercy"), Innocent ("hopeful" as well as "innocent") and Pius ("pious").

Cardinal Ratzinger gave a moving and profound homily at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 9 April 2005. As the new Pope Benedict XVI, he began his reign today by speaking to the world's one billion Catholics of the importance of humility and the need to be robust in faith.

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