The selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II as the Catholic Church’s 265th pontiff is quickly becoming one of the most questionable actions ever taken by an oligarchy. The sheer number of American and European newspapers leading their coverage of Pope Benedict XVI with buzzwords such as “hardliner,” “conservative,” or “traditional” is overwhelming, but expected.
It shouldn’t be surprising that The New York Times ran news stories in sync with these buzz words, as well as a fantastic column by Maureen Dowd that described the new pope as a “78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth.” Needless to say, the selection of the very traditional Ratzinger was not what a lot of American and European Catholics were hoping for. Our secular news media is similarly befuddled with a selection that will bring the Church back to “business as usual.”
In reality, the election of Pope Benedict XVI isn’t meant to be for the liberal American or European Catholic community. It’s amusing to hear the disappointment of those progressively-minded Catholics who are disappointed that a reformist wasn’t chosen, because it’s almost as if they’re surprised. The Sacred College of Cardinals was essentially handpicked by John Paul II before his death, and even though he pursued a more progressive agenda early in his tenure, the College was, in all likelihood, going to choose someone to continue John Paul II-esque Church thinking.
Pope Benedict XVI is as close to “old school” as a pontiff can get, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one’s own faith. Ratzinger’s history, as outlined by the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford and Sophie Arie, includes endless examples of his discouraging modernization of Catholic doctrine, harsh criticisms of homosexuality and gay marriage, and denunciations of radical feminism and the idea of women joining the priesthood. Ratzinger’s role in developing and defending a 2000 Church document that reinforced the doctrine of “there is no salvation outside the Church” was noteworthy, as it negated almost 20 years of relativistic progress the Church had made.
But what of progress? Prior to John Paul II’s death, there were plenty of rumblings among even moderate Catholics that a change was on the horizon following that pontiff’s passing. Is Pope Benedict XVI the bucket of water to the flame of reform in the Catholic Church? Because if he’s in there, none of the things that so-called “cafeteria Catholics” — those who pick and choose which doctrine to follow — wanted to see reformed will ever come about. For instance, it is likely Benedict will continue seeing the priest abuse crisis as something to be “blamed” just on homosexuality, and not having to do with that compelling greater issue of the Church’s oversight of American parishes.
Progress can still be on the horizon for the cafeteria Catholics, as there are legitimate reasons why certain Catholics pick and choose which doctrines to follow. For me, as a person who grew up in a Catholic household in a Catholic neighborhood liberal enough to know that condoms maybe aren’t such a bad idea, conservatism, a way of thinking that is entirely respectable, is simply not responsible in such blindly doled-out doses. Ask the entire continent of Africa, and they’ll agree.
The term of Benedict XVI, who is an old man, after all, will likely be short, as he is what most papal pundits are calling a “transitional pope.” During the next six or seven years, as the pope comes into his own and begins to pursue the doctrinal defenses he has carried with him since his election to the College of Cardinals in 1977, those progressive Catholics who really think it’s time for a change will have a great opportunity to develop some profound, out-of-the-box ideas to muster up support for reform in the Catholic Church circa 2012, when Benedict XVI may leave office.
In the same way Democrats in the United States have four years to sort things out and regroup before 2008 comes along, liberal Catholics can spend this time starting grassroots reform movements here in the United States and in the increasingly secular Europe. If they can accomplish this, if they can build the same under-the-radar reformist support that eventually led to the Second Vatican Council, then maybe Benedict XVI’s term won’t be so bad.