In the News 2008

Pope’s many facets puzzle fans, critics: Known for enforcing doctrine, he’s also seen as very gentle, caring


Apr. 13–52% view pope favorably, poll says

When Pope Benedict XVI steps onto the field at Nationals Park on Thursday, chances are good he’ll hear a deafening roar of approval from the friendly crowd.

The cheers should follow him throughout his six-day tour of Washington and New York starting this week.

“These people are here because of the office he holds, more than anything else, more than for the individual,” said Monsignor Thomas F. Shreve, the vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. “It will be exciting.”

The man behind the excitement, though, is a bit more enigmatic than his predecessor, John Paul II. Three years into his papacy, Benedict has proved himself as hard to define as expected.

Is Joseph Ratzinger the man who was sometimes called “God’s Rottweiler” for his hard-line approach to doctrine, or the gentle soul who likes cats and enjoys playing the piano and listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto? Were his views shaped by decades as a church insider, or by a quiet childhood in a peaceful Bavarian village?

Could the boy born on Holy Saturday have pursued any other career, or was his path set in place after witnessing the atrocities of World War II as a conscript in the German army?

The only constant through the years has been Ratzinger’s ability to surprise.

After spending 24 years as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the modern version of the office that once led the Inquisition — his selection as pope was questioned from the beginning. To casual observers, he has done little to assuage the people who worried what would happen when Pope John Paul II’s longtime “enforcer” took charge.

However, supporters are quick to point out that the pope’s first encyclical, or letter to the church, was about Christian love. The theme for this month’s visit — his first to the U.S. — is “Christ our Hope.”

John Paul II was a global figure with a rock star following. But so far, Benedict XVI has not been as easy for people to connect with.

“Papacies have been defined by different things,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a Washington-based group that has been at odds with the Vatican over a variety of issues, most notably birth control. “John XXIII was very much a reforming pope. With Vatican II [which modernized some church practices], he threw the windows open, allowed some fresh air in.

“John Paul II was a very charismatic pope. You could have millions of people and still feel a personal connection. I’m hoping Benedict will be known as the listening pope. Maybe he could reflect on how the church could be more compassionate.”

The oldest pope elected in 200 years — he was 78 at the time — and the first German elected in centuries, Ratzinger brought with him a career’s worth of accomplishments.

His career as a priest was defined by three things: his work at Vatican II as a theological consultant to Cardinal Joseph Frings, the archbishop of Cologne; his tenure as a college professor and his time working in the Vatican.

At Vatican II, he earned his reputation for having a deep understanding of church history and doctrine. While many in the church took the conference’s loosening of doctrine as a cue to begin pushing for a more liberal, globally accessible version of Catholicism, Ratzinger not long after began his shift in the other direction.

As a professor, he honed his scholarly approach to theology. His speeches are well-researched and tend to delve into the depths of Catholicism foreign to casual parishioners. His fault, say critics and backers alike, is his tendency to overestimate the knowledge of his audience.

While at the Vatican, he earned his reputation as the church’s “enforcer” by preaching strict adherence to doctrine on issues such as end-of-life care, marriage and homosexuality.

He has caused consternation over — and left Vatican officials backtracking to explain — remarks about Muslims, Jews, women and native South Americans, among others. His refusal to meet with victims of the priest sex-abuse scandal has been questioned, as has his stance on denying Communion to practitioners of birth control.

The position on birth control, in particular, is “archaic and cruel,” O’Brien said. “It has really condemned people to some dreadful situations.”

In the Southern Hemisphere, O’Brien said, the ban on birth control has dire consequences, including the spread of disease. In the Northern Hemisphere, the ban has a more subtle effect. It creates a divide between what the church wants and what many parishioners actually practice.

The Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, sees a different man coming.

The pope is a direct link to the foundation of the church, “and that’s why we’re going to go out and see him and cheer,” Wuerl said. “But he’s also a unique individual, Joseph Ratzinger. I think what we’re going to see is this holy father is a very gentle, very caring, very passionate man who is also extremely intelligent. I think when you listen to him speak, he speaks of a shepherd’s heart.”

This article originally appeared in the 13 April 2008 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Catholics for Choice