But does this latest move indicate that the man once known as the Grand Inquisitor is returning to form, or that a new wave of dissent is emerging?
The investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was launched by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican agency charged with overseeing orthodoxy, and the department that Benedict — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — led for nearly a quarter century before his election.
During his time there, and as a top aide to the late Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger oversaw a range of investigations into priests, theologians, nuns and church groups perceived as straying too far left for Rome’s conservative tastes. That earned Ratzinger, a German theologian, a host of epithets, such as the “Panzerkardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler” — harsh nicknames that Ratzinger’s fans considered badges of honor.
In the years after his election, however, there was almost a sense of disappointment among some on the Catholic right that Benedict was not moving swiftly and sharply to crack down on liberal dissidents.
One reason for that perception was that as pope, Benedict has to be a pastor to his global flock more than a disciplinarian. “It was easy to know the doctrine. It’s much harder to help a billion people live it,” as he told a dinner companion a year after his election.
Another reason for the relative lack of tough talk coming from Rome during the early years of Benedict’s papacy is that he had already done much to quell dissent. The Pax Romana that he helped install has meant that theologians and church officials know there will be consequences if they step out of line. At the same time, the Vatican has installed more conservative bishops who are willing to do the disciplining themselves.
In the U.S., bishops in recent years have taken action against a number of theologians, most notably last year when the bishops’ doctrine committee sharply criticized the work of a highly regarded theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, saying it contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.” Last month, Spanish bishops warned Catholics that the writings of one of the country’s best-known theologians, the Rev. Andres Torres Queiruga, were “distorting” certain “elements of the faith of the church” and should not be read.
In short, local church authorities are now doing the work that the Vatican used to do, and there has been less of that work to do.
Still, there are signs that may be changing.