"God's Rottweiler" Becomes the Church's "Beloved German Shepherd"
How Pope Benedict has disappointed the right.
For more on the pope's visit, read " On Faith," a blog on religion produced by the Washington Post and Newsweek. Religion professor Donna Freitas makes three wishes for the Catholic church. On Faith's Sally Quinn interviews clergy-abuse victim Barbara Blaine. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo discusses the pope as a defender of faith. And "Campus Catholic" Elizabeth Tenety writes on faith, hope, and love.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, Catholic conservatives in America were licking their chops. "The 'progressive' project is over," Catholic neocon George Weigel triumphantly announced. William Donohue, the eccentric, right-wing president of the Catholic League, said of Catholic liberals, "We expect that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will begin soon."
Three years later, as American Catholics prepare for the pope's visit next week, those same conservatives in the United States have been disappointed. They had hoped Benedict would confront liberal tendencies in the church. Some, like Weigel, sought to purge the presbyterate of gays whom they blamed for the sex-abuse scandal. They wanted the ecclesiastical equivalent of court-packing, with the pope appointing only conservatives to major posts. But Benedict has defied them in his appointments, in his views on capitalism and the war in Iraq, and even in his approach to other faiths. "No one would call Benedict the darling of the left, but he has been moderate, pastoral, tolerant, nuanced," says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and U.S. leader of the Catholic group Communione e Liberazione.
Conservative distress began almost immediately after Pope Benedict took over, when in May 2005 he named San Francisco Archbishop William Levada to fill his old job as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position that amounts to being the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. Levada had been suspect to conservatives since 1996, when he worked out a compromise on same-sex partner benefits with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Under Levada's proposal, employees at Catholic institutions could designate anyone with whom they were legally domiciled as their beneficiary: an aunt, a cousin, a same-sex partner. The proposal avoided the culture war that some Catholic conservatives were hoping for. In a controversial article in February 2006, Father Richard John Neuhaus cited the Levada appointment as one of the reasons for "a palpable uneasiness" among "those who greatly admired Cardinal Ratzinger and were elated by his election as pope."
The next year, when Benedict had to appoint a new archbishop for Washington, D.C.—his first major stateside appointment—neocons hoped he would redeem himself. They championed three archbishops who had publicly urged denying communion to pro-choice politicians during the 2004 election: Charles Chaput of Denver, Raymond Burke of St. Louis, and John Myers of Newark, N.J. Instead, Benedict chose Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, a moderate who has opposed turning the communion rail into a political battle station. Benedict further disappointed conservatives hellbent on denying communion to pro-choice politicians when he named as cardinal Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who refused to order Sen. John Kerry out of church. Benedict's choices shouldn't have surprised anyone, though. According to one American present during a spring 2004 Vatican meeting with U.S. bishops, then-Cardinal Ratzinger laughed when he heard of denying politicians communion based on their political views. After all, popes have, over the years, given communion to Communist mayors, gay legislators, and countless pro-choice politicians.
But appointments weren't the only area where Benedict failed to live up to expectations. Conservatives took heart when then-Cardinal Ratzinger denounced the "filth" within the church at Good Friday services just weeks before his election as pope in 2005. They understood him to refer to sexually active gay clergy whom right-wing Catholics blamed for the sexual abuse of minors. But the first victim of Benedict's purge was the founder of the ultraconservative Legionnaires of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, who under John Paul II had long avoided being suspended despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Benedict also removed John Paul II's closest collaborator, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, whose ties to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had severely compromised the church's image in Latin America. Sodano's American secretary was also sacked from the Vatican diplomatic corps late last year.
Michael Sean Winters is the author of Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images.