"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.
Pope Benedict shares virtually none of the core political beliefs of American neocons. In his book Jesus of Nazareth,he warned against "capitalism that degrades man to the level of merchandise." He has consistently spoken out against the Iraq war. And the whole reason Benedict is coming to America is to address the United Nations, which is not the neocons' favorite organization. Even when Benedict has endorsed a part of the conservative agenda, he has done so with none of the rigidity that characterizes the writings of American Catholic conservatives. Throughout his career, first as theologian, then as bishop and cardinal, and now as pope, Benedict has emphasized the centrality of the person of Christ in the salvation of the world. Yet he has been adept at making profound interreligious gestures, meeting with Muslim diplomats at the Vatican to soothe relations after an unfortunate remark in a speech, reaching out to Eastern Orthodox Christians at every opportunity, and even framing the central section of his book Jesus of Nazareth as a response to a book by his friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner. When Benedict brought back the traditional Tridentine Mass, he changed certain prayers from the Good Friday liturgy that were offensive to Jews.
Still, Pope Benedict is no liberal. One of the problems with most press coverage of the Catholic Church is that the left-right template doesn't fit very well. The right tends to ignore or water down the church's teachings about social justice, while the left frequently minimizes the church's teachings on sexual ethics. A pope can't side with either group but must love them both and try to communicate the church's teachings in their entirety and integrity.
The difference between Ratzinger the cardinal—the man conservatives saw as an answer to their prayers—and Benedict the pope—who has disappointed those same Catholics—has less to do with any changes within the man himself. He has, by almost all accounts, always been brilliant, concerned about overly hasty theological change, personally kind, prayerful. What has changed is his job. For 23 years, Cardinal Ratzinger's job was to protect the deposit of faith from distortions or manipulations which, even if well-intended, might alter the content of what Catholics believe was given them by God when He founded the church. This was a difficult and often controversial task, and it was a desk job. When he was elected pope, he became a pastor. Albacete says, "He is committed to exploring how faith and reason work together to lead man to the truth about himself. Benedict would never diminish himself, or his office, fighting tired ideological battles." The change in roles can be found in another way: Until he was elected pope, had anyone ever seen a picture of Joseph Ratzinger embracing children?
All popes have three central tasks: to lead the church in prayer, to teach the truths of the faith, and to govern the universal church. To watch Benedict preside at Mass is to see someone whose interiority, whose depth, is almost tangible. Liturgies are never rushed. The sermons are always exquisite. As a teacher, Benedict has used his weekly general audiences to revisit the teachings of the fathers of the church, those early writers and thinkers who shaped Christian theology before the divisions between East and West. His writings are accessible and profound, and his best-selling book may reach people whom traditional methods of evangelization miss. Some quibble about his governance of the church—that appointments take too long, that he is not accessible enough to this group or that. But Benedict has gone from being known derisively as "God's Rottweiler" to becoming the church's "beloved German shepherd."
Cheering the pope in Washington and New York will be those Catholics who look to their church for comfort and challenge, for solace and strength, people who are more concerned about loving their pope than they are about any ideological battles within or without the church. Joining in the cheers will be many of those who greeted his election with trepidation. And if there is any gnashing of teeth, it will be coming from the bleachers on the far right.
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.