The selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th individual to be Pope, has stirred mixed feelings in many Catholics. On the one hand, the spectacle of seeing Roman Catholicism front and center in the world stage as a new pope was selected provided a forum for Catholics to express publicly their hopes and joys over the Church they belong to. On the other hand, the selection of Ratzinger puts into the papacy an individual who embodies the aspects of Catholicism that turn away so many Americans. What then to make of Pope Benedict XVI?
Calling himself “a humble worker” Pope Benedict XVI began has papal reign in a spirit of humility, acknowledging the widespread love for his predecessor, John Paul II, and the great work ahead for the Church in the 21st century. But the new Pope’s history as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith established a reputation of being a strictly orthodox theologian, one opposed to expanding the role of women in the Church, the popularity of liberation theology, the acceptance of contraception, and other issues that are increasingly important to American Catholics. Will Benedict continue to remain firm on these issues at the expense of alienating wide segments of American Catholics?There is hope that Pope Benedict may yet prove himself more moderate in his new position than in his old. Before, his main concern was to define Catholic orthodoxy. Now, his main concern is to manage a church consisting of 1.1 billion people. Indeed, it is possible that Benedict may be precisely what the Church needs to maintain a firm connection to its roots while moving into the present-it may be that the man once known as Joseph Ratzinger will follow in the path of Nixon going to China and enact the reforms that a moderate or liberal would not be able to pull through.
But, then again, Nixon also ended up resigning in shame over the Watergate scandal. While it would be unprecedented for a Pope to resign, the Church may pay a higher cost if Benedict continues to adhere to a strict notion of what Catholicism should be.
For it may be American Catholics who resign from the Church, leaving it at a time when its moral authority is most urgently needed in promoting social justice and peace around the world. Instead of Nixon going to China, it may be Americans going to Canada, as increasingly disillusioned Catholics leave the Church for religious denominations they find to be more relevant in our modern technological world. The actions by Pope Benedict in the days ahead will determine which possibility becomes reality.