An Agenda, Certainly, but Which?

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Times Staff Writer

Benedict XVI may travel less than his globetrotting predecessor, but few expect him to act like a “caretaker” pope.

Instead, the 78-year-old pontiff is expected to pursue an activist agenda, topped by a mission to revitalize the Roman Catholic faith and identity where it is threatened by secularism, particularly in Europe.

But after persuading two-thirds of the College of Cardinals to elect him, the new pontiff must now lead a 1-billion-member flock that is deeply divided over the church’s direction and his own promise to stay the course. How he will convince Catholics that he is pastor to them all is uncertain.


The mixed reaction to the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reflects his familiar role as a lightning rod for the harshest criticism leveled at John Paul II’s long reign.

It was Ratzinger whose Vatican doctrinal office silenced or reprimanded more than 100 Catholic theologians, according to some estimates. He epitomized a centralization of authority in the Vatican under John Paul at the expense of local bishops, while enforcing church doctrine against married priests, women in the priesthood, remarriage for divorced Catholics and homosexual relationships.

Many Catholics around the world welcomed Ratzinger’s election as an act inspired by God. But others said they were in shock.

“Ratzinger is a polarizing figure who seems to prefer combativeness to compromise and compassion,” said Mary Grant, a spokeswoman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

But some prominent critics of Ratzinger said they were hoping for something different in Pope Benedict.

The new pontiff held out what some saw as an olive branch in the way he explained the inspiration for his name: Pope Benedict XV, who ran the church during World War I and after a divisive pontificate, had given himself to “peacemaking, reconciliation and harmony,” he said.


That explanation, said Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, “gives me some hope” that Ratzinger will listen to demands from bishops for more “collegiality,” or democracy, in church governance.

Father Hans Kung of Germany, who was stripped of his authority by Ratzinger to teach at Catholic universities for questioning church teachings, called Ratzinger’s election “an enormous disappointment,” but added: “The papacy is such a challenge that it can change anyone.... Let us therefore give him a chance.”

Kung noted that Pope John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, had started as a conservative but turned more progressive.

Still, the overriding message of Ratzinger’s election, on the second day of secret voting in the Sistine Chapel, was continuity with John Paul.

“Of all the men in that room, Cardinal Ratzinger was certainly the smartest and the one who most represented John Paul II’s theology and view of the world,” said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the New York-based Jesuit magazine America. “They picked the man who would carry on with that legacy.”

In an editorial last week, Reese warned the cardinals that “a church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto.” He said the next pope must be open to a priesthood that admitted women and married men.


After Ratzinger’s election, Reese said it was clear that such issues “will simply remain off the table.”

“He sees his first task as protecting the traditional identity of Catholics in the world against an infinite sea of threats,” said John L. Allen Jr., who wrote a biography of Cardinal Ratzinger. Opening the priesthood, for example, “might create a slippery slope down which the church risks losing its identity,” the author said.

“Obviously, the keystone of the Ratzinger pontificate will be one of preserving traditional teachings rather than tinkering with them,” Allen added.

The new pope is expected to stress “culture of life” issues, doing battle against gay marriage, euthanasia and stem cell research. He is likely to ensure that theological speculation is contained within narrow limits. His governing metaphor for the church of the future is the mustard seed. It might have to be smaller to be faithful -- what he calls a “creative minority.”

The new pope’s focus on Europe is a reaction, in part, to setbacks the Vatican suffered last year when the European Union refused to mention the continent’s Christian roots in its new constitution, a decision both John Paul and Ratzinger publicly criticized.

Ratzinger’s papacy could differ from John Paul’s in important ways. He is likely to spend more time at the Vatican, whipping the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, into line with his goals of a more rigorously indoctrinated clergy, an improvement of the liturgy and a renewal of missionary work. Like most conservatives, he is averse to big government and might streamline the church’s central apparatus.


And whereas the late pope championed outreach to leaders of other faiths, Ratzinger has said it is of utmost importance to maintain Catholicism as a superior religion.

In the 2000 document “Dominus Iesus” (Lord Jesus), Ratzinger asserted Catholic primacy and branded other faiths, including Christian denominations, as deficient. The document incurred the wrath of Protestants, Anglicans, Jews and others. Ratzinger dismissed the protests as insignificant, further angering his critics.

Last year, Ratzinger said Turkey should not be allowed to join the European Union because, as a predominantly Muslim country, it was “in permanent conflict” with Europe.

The debate has washed over the church, with many struggling over whether fundamental differences between the two religions -- whose believers are in conflict in parts of the world -- can be bridged for the sake of dialogue and on the basis of shared moral values.

Many cardinals from Asia and Africa, where Catholicism is threatened by radical Islam or totalitarian regimes, admire Ratzinger’s assertive promotion of the faith. Several Vatican watchers speculated that significant numbers of cardinals from those continents joined with their conservative peers in Europe to give Ratzinger the majority he needed.

George Weigel, an American biographer of John Paul II, said Ratzinger had won enough support among Third World cardinals to isolate a progressive bloc from Europe and the U.S. that had opposed his candidacy.


“Popes don’t invent Catholicism anew,” Weigel said, dismissing the idea that liberal American Catholics inspired by church reforms of the 1960s could sway the new pontiff. “The Catholic Church isn’t going to alter fundamental points of doctrine and moral teaching. If people want to keep fighting the battles of 40 years ago, that’s their choice, but the church is moving on.”

Times staff writers Geraldine Baum and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.