Even Former Skeptics are Warming up to Pope as Ex-Watchdog Turns Gentle
The very name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — was once enough to provoke strong reactions among Roman Catholics: confidence among the more orthodox that the church stood for something firm, and fear among liberals of a harsh, closed-off faith.
But in the two months since Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he has not evoked such instantly polar emotions. Supporters and skeptics alike say Benedict is revealing himself as a man more complicated, subtle and personally warm than many had expected from his years as the Vatican’s defender of the faith.
He has, to be sure, served up much meat to orthodox Catholics — precisely his appeal to many of them. He has condemned homosexuality, gay marriage and the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. He intervened in Italian politics this month to keep in place a highly restrictive law on medically assisted fertility. This pleased some Catholics but raised high enough alarm in Italy about papal interference that President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi spoke of the ”necessary distinction” between church and state during a meeting with Benedict last month.
Yet many Catholics who disagree with him on those points note that his once granite oratory has softened. In the weeks before his election, he delivered lectures with contentious punches at the ”dictatorship of relativism” or ”filth in the church.” But since then, he talks less about sin than about the love of Jesus.
While any new pope would come up short in the inevitable comparisons with to the powerfully magnetic and charismatic John Paul II, Benedict has his own low-key, unassuming appeal. His manner is gentle, even shy, his voice quiet and his reasoning clear, the focus less on him and his strong views than on the church and its teaching.
”I have been pleasantly surprised by what we have seen thus far,” said the Rev. Keith F. Pecklers, an American Jesuit who is a professor at the Gregorian, a pontifical university in Rome. ”What strikes me is that he is clearly a man of deep prayer and spirituality. He is very intelligent, a good theologian. And he is very humble. He clearly does not want to call attention to himself.”
Crowds still fill St. Peter’s Square for papal audiences, as they did for John Paul. Some are strong supporters, some say they are waiting and seeing. Many of the latter seem willing to extend the papal honeymoon, be it for love of the church, respect for the papacy or affection for the man. Many Catholics loved John Paul even while disagreeing with him.
”At first, I wasn’t sure about this pope,” said Teresa La Peruta, 59, a homemaker from Naples who, along with thousands of other Catholics, cheered Benedict recently in St. Peter’s Square, even though she did not like his involvement in the fight over the fertility law. ”I have to be honest: I didn’t like him.”
Benedict, 78, had just delivered a typically elegant Bible lesson and greetings in a score of languages. Later, a firefighter’s hat, lampshade large, was propped atop the papal head. A man in a wheelchair asked him to share some words with someone on his cellphone, reported later to be a terminally ill nun. The pope fumbled with the phone, but took the call with no fuss at all.
”He is beginning to win me over,” said Ms. La Peruta. ”I hope he does so more and more.”
Longtime supporters say they are not surprised that Benedict has engendered such affection. The image of the cold enforcer, they say, was always a caricature.
”I have known this man for a very long time, and what I am seeing, frankly, is the man I have always known,” said George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul who is finishing a book on Benedict.
”It is not the pyrotechnic personality of Karol Wojtyla,” he added, using the given name of John Paul, who died on April 2. ”It’s the attractiveness of a man who knows exactly who he is, who, like John Paul II, is a genuine Christian radical, and who can explain the depth of Christian faith in a kind of winsome way.”
For more liberal Catholics, the current honeymoon represents a victory of style over substance: Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an American group that advocates abortion rights, said Benedict had reached out to non-Catholics but not to Catholics who disagree with church teaching on abortion, contraception or the place of women in the church.
”It reminds me of my mother,” Ms. Kissling said. ”My mother was a person all my friends adored. She was urbane. She was modern. And she was charming. Yet at home she was a strict disciplinarian and a pain in the neck.”
She said she had hoped that a new pope would ”concentrate intensely on healing the deep political rift that exists between orthodox Catholics and liberal or progressive Catholics, because the church internally is in bad shape.” Under Benedict, she predicted, ”this is not going to happen.”
Still, the gentler than expected public appeal is welcome for some. Both critics and supporters of John Paul worried at times that his huge outdoor Masses and rock-star appeal had the effect of focusing attention on the man. Benedict, less comfortable in the spotlight, has shifted the public’s focus to the papal office, the church and its rituals.
”John Paul was a man whose persona commanded stage center wherever he was and in whatever context, and that was part of his being a giant walking upon the earth,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the traditionalist Catholic magazine First Things. ”Joseph Ratzinger is a man who has lived his life rather quietly when you get right down to it, within the church and for the church.”
For many Vatican watchers, it is simply too early to draw strong conclusions. One early event that is likely to be telling, many say, is the celebration of World Youth Day, an annual event started by John Paul, to be held Aug. 16 to 21 in Cologne, Germany, Joseph Ratzinger’s native land.
Other opportunities to assess him will be his first encyclical — a major theological document in which he will spell out the major themes of his papacy — and how he makes key Vatican appointments.
Still, in speeches and audiences, Benedict has given many hints of his direction. A leading theologian with several books and scores of speeches over decades, he has not departed much from his long paper trail, with his concerns about relativism — the idea that all beliefs are equal — secularism and a modern world that, he believes, has left God behind.
”Italian culture is one that is intimately permeated with Christian values,” he said when he visited President Ciampi in June. ”My hope is that the Italian people not only resist reneging on their Christian heritage, which is part of their history, but that it guards it jealously so that it brings fruits worthy of its past.”
He also said his papacy would focus on marriage and the sanctity of all human life.
He shows no hint of doctrinal softening. In a new book, ”The Europe of Benedict: The Crisis of Cultures,” the text of which was written before he became pope and which was released in Italy this month, he says secularism could lead to discrimination against the church’s right to preach what it believes.
”Very soon, one will not be able to affirm that homosexuality, as the Catholic Church teaches, constitutes an objective disorder in the structure of human existence,” he wrote.
His writings have found a new and larger audience, one that appreciates their intelligence and clarity. ” I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger,” the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci told The Wall Street Journal last month. ”I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same thing, there must be some truth there.” Experts say Benedict, who was one of John Paul’s top aides, is largely treading the same theological ground as his predecessor. His continuation of John Paul’s outreach to other faiths surprised some, given the doubts that he has raised in the past about ecumenism.
But some differences have emerged, too. He shows no inclination, for example, to canonize as many saints as did John Paul, who declared 483 people to be saints, more than all his predecessors combined. While speeding up the process to beatify John Paul, Benedict resisted demands to proclaim immediate sainthood.
John Paul could tend toward the mystical in his preaching; Benedict tends to be ”down to earth,” in the words of one Vatican watcher.
Benedict’s lower public profile was signaled early. Several Vatican officials say he wanted his installation Mass as pope held not outside in St. Peter’s Square but in the more private basilica.
He was talked out of it, and since then has often appeared in public. But he does not seem to try to work the crowds. At a recent public audience, he waved away applause for him as he was beginning a prayer. One day last month, he drove through downtown Rome in a convertible, waving, but stopping only for a moment to shake hands with Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, in Piazza Venezia.
The Rev. Janusz Bizewski, 34, a Polish-Canadian priest studying in Rome, said he read that as humility and spiritual rootedness: ”That no matter what happens, things will go well. That is his attitude: ‘Hold your horses, take it easy, I am with you.”’
CORRECTION-DATE: August 9, 2005
An article on July 4 about a shift in the public perception of Pope Benedict XVI during the first two months of his papacy referred incorrectly to a magazine edited by the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who commented on the pope’s personality. The magazine, First Things, considers itself interreligious and ecumenical, not ”traditionalist Catholic.” Father Neuhaus notified the writer of the error, but the writer was vacationing until July 19 and did not receive the message until then. An editing oversight resulted in further delay.
This article originally appeared in the 4 July 2005 edition of the New York Times.