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Pope Benedict XVI: American Reaction

David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 12:00 PM

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, long known as the chief guardian of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, was elected Tuesday to succeed Pope John Paul II. He took the name Pope Benedict XVI. The election was hailed by the waiting crowd in St. Peter's Square, but the choice also prompted expressions of skepticism from some Catholics and others who view Ratzinger as a hard-liner on key social issues and fear he could be a divisive figure.

What will the reaction be from American Catholics -- many of whom railed against the traditional stances taken by Pope John Paul II on issues including celibacy in the clergy, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the priest sex-abuse scandal?

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Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle was online Wednesday, April 20, at Noon ET to discuss his story about American reaction to Pope Benedict XVI, Americans See a Figure Familiar From The Fray, and the future of the Catholic church in the U.S.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


David Von Drehle: Greetings, everyone, and welcome to the chat.

For those who haven't had the time or chance to read my story this morning, here's the gist: The new pope, Benedict XVI,is extrenmely well-known to American Catholics. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he has been a key, and polarizing, figure in many of the most intense disputes of the past 20-some years.

Which will make his papacy supercharged and super-interesting for the vibrant and complicated American church.

Let's go to questions ...


Atlanta, Ga.: I'm hearing two tales about this Pope: That his role in the Council of Faith and Doctrine has hardened him and that he has a softer side which we have not seen. Which view is correct and what tangible evidence do we have to support the latter?

David Von Drehle: I never had the chance to meet Cardinal Ratzinger, but I know people who have--and invariably they came away saying that they expected a tough guy and were surprised to find a rather gentle, self-effacing sort of guy.

On the other hand, there is nothing gentle about his writing, which is muscular and vigorous and forceful. His long tenure at the Congregation -- which monitors Church orthodoxy -- means that he is on record on jsut about every contenious point in church life. So I don't know that he has much room to change.

What we may see is a softer-than-expected face on a very firm doctrinal line. Which would feel familiar after the papacy of John Paul II.


Anonymous: According to a Gallup poll taken late yesterday, nearly three-quarters of American Catholics say they are more likely to follow their own conscience on "difficult moral questions," rather than the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI. Does this suggest that U.S. Catholics will continue to make their own personal judgements, despite likely exhortations from the Pope? And what potential responses can he make, if he perceives his exhortations are being ignored?

David Von Drehle: I think every American Catholic knows that certain doctrines--especially those surrounding contraception--are not followed by a majority of adult churchgoers. And if they all know it, then Benedict XVI knows it, too--because this is one very, very smart man.

What can he do about it? Exhort, and exhort harder, and exhort some more. He can continue to clamp down on licensed theologians who encourage this phenomenon, but that's not likely to have a huge effect. After all, this is not an area of life in which married people tend to seek the advice of their celibate priests.

Beyond that, there are few options open to him. I don't think he has the room or the inclination to change doctrine on this point.


San Francisco, Calif.: The Church is becoming increasingly marginal throughout the world. The customs, habits, and many of the superficial beliefs of the Church arose in an agricultural, essentially non-scientific society in which changing technology played a minor role. That society no longer exists. Now people throughout the world struggle to adapt to global changes resulting from technology and driven by science. Is the Church at a turning point? Under the leadership of Benedict, will the Church tip completely into irrelevancy? Only hubris believes that "it cannot" happen to a 2,000-year-old institution.

David Von Drehle: I'm not sure we're looking at the same world. Under John Paul II the number of Roman Catholics in the world rose about 30 percent. Huge portions of the globe were evangelized.

Most important, perhaps, John Paul II figured out how to make the pope a force in the modern world. If you had said the church was headed toward irrelevancy 30 or 35 years ago, I might have bought the notion, but not now.


Fairfax, Va.: Not directly related to Benedict XVI, but as I see you write for The Post perhaps you can answer something that bugs me. Why do Washington Post articles not use the traditional form in referring to cardinals? For example, the archbishop of Washington is Theodore Cardinal McCarrick (or Theodore E. Cardinal McCarrick), but The Post always puts "Cardinal" in front of his name. Could you perhaps explain why? Thank you in advance.

David Von Drehle: I don't know. I think it may be an Associated Perss style issue, because it's the case at all the secular papers I know about. Years ago when I started writing about Catholic church issues for the Miami Herald, I tried to get them to adopt the correct style -- Name-Cardinal-Surname. To no avail.

I think the idea is that this is parallel to other, non-Catholic titles, like Dr. Joe Blow, Rev. Jim Bob, President Abraham Lincoln, etc.


Chicago, Ill.: Isn't it obvious that the Vatican hates America? The Left thinks we're too rich. The Right thinks we're too individualistic. They both think we're too powerful. That's the thanks we get for being the only industrialized nation where people still attend church.

David Von Drehle: I've heard this a lot in the past couple of weeks. I don't claim to know WHAT the Vatican thinks.

The USA probably is a bit of a mystery to them, though. It's secularized in certain European ways and faithful in certain Southern Hemispheric ways. It's a boisterous country that loves to argue but manages to remain loyal to shared institutions despite disagreements. As those Latin lovers might say, sui generis!


Washington, D.C.: Let me first state my own bias as a theological conservative, so in that light of course I am very pleased with the selection.

One thing that I think media reports tend to miss is that a major goal of the late Holy Father was to see unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. (When Cardinal Ratzinger said "other Christian churches" at the funeral Mass, he meant the Orthodox -- that's standard Vatican usage.) The Orthodox do not have women priests or any of the things that the media list as major issues. I cannot for a moment believe that the Catholic Church, assuming the interest in unity is sincere, would torpedo any hope of ending the thousand-year schism by doing things that, in essence, would make Catholicism more Protestant.

David Von Drehle: Yes -- this is true, and thanks for adding it.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI are not only theology but also time and place--two Middle Europeans from the middle 20th century. I think it's useful to ponder all the ways that this might shape their world views. And this awareness of the Orthodox church, which is virtually invisible in U.S. discourse, is one of those views.


Baltimore, Md.: Given the former Nazi past and the title of the Office for the Doctrine of Faith (previously called the Inquisition), and Ratzinger's adoration of Vatican I tactics, this is a dangerous set-back for the Jewish community worldwide. Benedict XV sought world peace through the establishment of the Vatican as the Supreme governmental and religious authority of all mankind. Will Benedict XVI continue this Inquisition? Has not anyone noticed that the present and former Pontiffs are from the two countries that sought to annihilate the Jewish race? Ora pro nobis, Iudaea.

David Von Drehle: Wow.

I'll leave it to the new pope to speak through words and actions about views on this subject. But as to John Paul II, I think most Jewish leaders would say that he was more respectful of their faith than any pope in memory. He was the first on record to visit a synagogue and later he prayed at the Western Wall. He spoke often of the common threads linking Christianity and Judaism and apologized (though not adequately in the view of many historians) for what he saw as inadequate opposition by the Church to Nazism.

(And let me add in that context that cerain things he did--the beatification of Edith Stein adn the defense of Pius XII leap to mind--came under considerable and well-buttressed criticism from students of Catholic-Jewish relations.)


Washington, D.C.: The thing I found particularly interesting about the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger to be Pope was how political it seemed. As tantalizing as the idea of an African or Latin American Pope was, I didn't buy it -- the church just isn't that forward-looking, and the spread of Catholicism in those areas (particularly Africa) is still too new. But the selection just seemed almost like the foregone conclusion that American presidential nominations are, and I immediately (and probably incorrectly) thought it gave a glimpse of the political motivations of the college of cardinals in their choice -- conservative, interim, big changes for later, get administrative house in order and clarify doctrine, etc.

David Von Drehle: Well, nobody has more experience over a longer period of time in the politics game than the Roman Curia. They wrote the book. They were old hands back when Machiavelli was still learning to count votes.

So I imagine that political considerations were at play -- in the sense that the Church has a place in the world and thus has to consider worldly issues.

But I don't think that spiritual concerns had no place here. Some of the Cardinals are spiritually gifted as well as politically gifted.


Benedict : Do you think we will see a surge in the use of this name?

Will Catholic mothers name their sons after the new pontiff even if the name has gone the way of Gertrude in the United States?

David Von Drehle: I meet a a lot of people with sons named John Paul ...

But I'd be surprised if we see a rush on Benedict. Bd connotations for American patriots (Benedict Arnold, etc.)


Poland and the Jews: To say Poland sought to annihilate the Jews is absurd. The Poles have long been victims of the Germans, and as a Pole myself, I am glad my parents did not live to see this papacy.

David Von Drehle: I'm going to post a couple here that speak for themselves ...


Re: Baltimore's question on Pope's Nazi past and love of Vatican I: This is a misinformed opinion. J. Ratzinger was drafted in a compulsory fashion into the military, but left to become a priest. Cardinal Ratzinger was also a leading advocate of Vatican II reforms. Please get your facts straight before making inflammatory accusations.

David Von Drehle:


Seattle, Wash.: As a devout Catholic and a liberal on most issues, I'm pretty darn disappointed in this selection. The biggest reason for my disappointment is my fear that (and I pray I am/will be proved wrong) no further dialog on areas of concern to the laity will be entertained.

Vatican II was supposed to increase the role of the laity in the church. JPII and now B-XVI seem determined to stop that thread in its tracks. And women, especially, will not be heard...

David Von Drehle: I think a lot of people share this concern.

I wrote a piece a week or so ago that tried to get at the role of the laity, and maybe we can link to it. In fact, American lay Catholics have assumed an enormous new role in Church operations--they now run almost everything--but they remain closed out of the uppermost decisions.

I'm not sure how that plays out. Thanks for your thoughts!


Tulsa, Okla.: Hail Mary Full Of Grace! How will the church deal with the shortage of young priests who do not want to vow celibacy? As it stands now, there is only one priest to every four church's and the shortage of priests will have a big effect on the future of the Catholic church.

David Von Drehle: The shortage of riests is discussed in that same piece of mine. Your statistics are a bit off--right now its about one of six parishes without a priest. But the average age of diocesan priests is 60-plus, so that number is going to grow amd grow quickly. It is probably the biggest long-term issue facing the church in the U.S.


washingtonpost.com: Catholics Divided on Role of Laity, (Post, April 10)


Global View: With the pick of Ratsinger, the church is in deeper trouble than before. The last few adherents in Europe will be gone now, 55 percent of his own German volk opposed his appointment. Latin America is upset that, despite being the region with the largest Catholic population, they were ignored. (Not to mention Ratsinger's role in silencing respected church leaders there). Africa is likely to be unimpressed by another European pope as well.

So that leaves the U.S. Is the U.S. market so important for the church that it warrants alienating all the others? Or does the church simply prefer to preach to an ever-shrinking group of "pure" followers rather than reaching out?

David Von Drehle: Gloomy view!

The reality is that most Catholics outside of Italy little knew and little cared who the pope was before John XXIII and John Paul II. And the church did pretty well for most of those years (the period between 314 and 1517 was quite a run ...)

So you may be putting a shade too much emphasis on one man in Rome in the context of a billion people who are MOSTLY just trying to figure out their own lives.


Gaithersburg, Md.: RE: Cardinal in the middle of the name... That's an archaic form originated in the middle ages. (e.g., Alfred, Lord Tennyson). AP Stylebook abhors such usage, too.

One final comment: It's dumb stuff like this that keeps the Church from moving forward. Who cares?

David Von Drehle: Thanks!


Columbia, Mo.: As a 39-year-old female married Catholic, I am thrilled with the selection of the new Pope. What amazes me is this "day-after" criticism, Monday morning quarterbacking, especially in reference to his being a German. I am half-German and it's so tiring and frustrating to hear that all Germans are bad or were Nazis. And to top it off, he's a doctrinarian so that makes him a right wing zealot. Puhleez! I guess that was a comment, not a question. My question is that I hope the Church does allow for married priests. There is shortage and that would be a good thing, making the pool from which to pull a better one. And thank you Mr. Von Drehle for hosting this discussion!

David Von Drehle: You're telling me! With a name like "Von Drehle" ...

Thanks for joining in!


Re: Jewish relations: The lead of a story on the Jerusalem Post Web site: "The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope on Tuesday, Jewish religious leaders say, is a sign that the warming ties initiated by Pope John Paul II between the Vatican and Jews will continue."
New Pope Hailed for Strong Jewish Ties, (Jerusalem Post, April 20)

I read an editorial by The JPost yesterday that talked about Ratzinger's history in the Hitler Youth that essentially said, "yeah, so? That's been public for a long time, it was under specific circumstances, and so what?"

David Von Drehle: Thanks for the contribution.


Alexandria, Va.: A couple of thoughts. The 12 Apostles were all married, and celibacy was only introduced into the church less than 1,000 years ago. Doctrine changes all the time. Theology is an academic discipline like mathematics, except that no central authority licenses mathematicians. I am depressed that dozens of (U.S.) theologians were silenced during the papacy of JPII, rather than their ideas being debated. For the record, I am a church-going Catholic, Kerry voter, and educated in a Jesuit college... in the 1960s.

David Von Drehle: The celibate priesthood is a deep and fascinating subject.

For what it's worth, I don't think the Church "silenced" many theologians. We've been hearing frequently in recent weeks from Hans Kung, Charles Curran, etc. And as a free speech guy, that suits me fine.

What Ratzinger did was say that theoloians who roam beyond certain boundaries cannot be licensed to teach in official Catholic universities--thus Curran is now a tenured professor in Dallas rather than at the Catholic University of America.


Bethesda, Md.: As an Anglican, I hesitate to wade into Roman Catholic waters, but to those who are hyping Ratzinger's Vatican II bona fides, I would note that he very pointedly gave his most recent speech -- the one calculated to burnish his image as a welcoming man -- in very pre-Vatican II Latin.

David Von Drehle: Lots of Latin in recent weeks!

But Ratzniger's Vatican II bona fides are not being invented from whole cloth. He and Karol Wojtyla of Poland were both very influential figures at Vatican II, adn they both cite the key Vatican II documents -- Guadium et Spes, etc. -- very frequently in their own work. What they seem to be telling us is that Vatican II did not mean what the early media reports THOUGHT it meant.

And they seem to have the conclave votes to back that up ...


Anonymous: Benedict is at an age when most people are long since retired, and even his brother was quoted as saying that he was too old to be Pope. Having watched the sad decline of the last pope over the last five years, do we know anything about the level of mental and physical health of the new pope? An interim operating at 100 percent is one thing, but an interim at 50 percent is quite another.

David Von Drehle: I think he's sharp as a tack. Haven't heard anything to the contrary -- anyone else?


Fairfax, Va.: This from another Catholic: I am delighted with our new Pope!

As for married priests -- as a former Protestant, let me tell you, lose that idea. Sounds like a quick fix, but you get more problems than you think. Expanding the ranks and role of deacons, now that's an idea to explore... Lot's of people don't even know we have deacons -- and they can be married.

David Von Drehle: Thanks--

The ranks of the Permanent Deacons are growing ALMOST as fast as the ranks of the priests are shrinking. These are men, many of them married, most of them retired from other careers, who are ordained. They can do ALMOST everything a priest can do (I think celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions are the two exceptions ...)

What I wonder, though, is whether the church really wants a two-class hierarchy, with deacons handling the pastoral care of the flock while a dwindling number of priests go from parish to parish performing the miracle of consecration for people they hardly know. Is that the recipe for vibrancy? Dunno.


Lyndonville, Vt.: What impact do you think the demographic shift in the American Roman Catholic Church has on the hierarchy's thinking about dissidents? Could the leadership of the church be thinking, "Who cares about these intellectual and middle-class dissidents? We're getting an influx of people from Latin America who will go along with our thinking?" Is that too cynical?

David Von Drehle: I'm not sure they think that way. To stick up a moment for the Catholics (and let me confess here: I ain't one. Just an interested Protestant ...)

You would be hard pressed to find an institution in the history of the world that has supported as many intellectuals and coped with as much dissent as the Catholic church. In a moment I will post an offering from a fellow who reminds us of the heretic burnings and other sins. But there are two sides to this very old coin, and the church can point to museums full of art, libraries full of books, endless hours of beautiful music, that it has fostered for the world.

So I'm not sure I agree that they have contempt for intellectuals and educated people.


Boston, Mass.: The Church may not be irrelevant in the world, but it's on the verge on becoming irrelevant in Europe. Do you see Ratzinger being able to change this?

David Von Drehle: Probably not. He's a fairly short-term guy and you're talking about a very long-term problem.


Doubtful in Durham, N.C.: David,
Looking at the larger picture, any guess why there is such a resurgence in fundamentalism among some members of three major religions? Is there some stress in market-driven societies that pushes people in this direction? It seems contrary to the liberalism we've experienced for much of the last century.

David Von Drehle: I think there's a pendulum in history, and people are having some second thoughts about the big swing toward the secular that defines much of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Missouri City, Tex.: I don't gived a flip.
The Church has killed more people, suppressed free thought and science, cloistered knowledge, tortured, maimed, murdered, and executed for divergent thought and trumped up charges of witchcraft -- converted many at the point of a sword.

The wealth of the Church and its loot could be put to better use.

David Von Drehle: Here's that post I mentionde.

I'm out of time here and someone else needs to use the room. On my way out let me post a few more without comment so you can hear a bit more from one another.

Thanks-- I learned a lot!


Silver Spring, Md.: First thanks for the link to your April 10 story. Its discussion of the Parish Evaluation Project mirrors responses of many lay participants in my parish's Vatican II study group: Anger over protection of pedophiles, overburdened priests who are distant from congregations; a feeling that laity are no longer willing to just "pay and pray."

My question: how will the new pope's known past affect U.S. pastors in coping with what many hope will be a lay uprising? Will they become more cowed or, as some prefer, "obedient," or will they reach out?

David Von Drehle:


Washington, D.C.: I am a Catholic from a third-world country in Asia (is there a first-world country there? Maybe Singapore). I consider myself politically liberal, but I am glad that a dogmatic conservative became pope. My reasoning is that, even if I don't practice what should be the standard for a Catholic, I want to know what is the ideal that is not swayed by what is temporarily popular. Are there a bunch of people like me?

David Von Drehle:


Virginia: As for Catholicism being new in Africa-you can read about the Ethiopian in Acts, Christianity was well established in North Africa in the first centuries AD, reached Sudan in the 6th century, and the Portuguese introduced Catholism in the 15th century in various areas in the south and west.

So many think of the Church as being European-it is truly universal.

David Von Drehle:


Washington, D.C.: One thing I find curious: the adherence of the church to such strict doctrine, particularly regarding sexual practices, when so much church growth is in areas of the world literally decimated by AIDS and other diseases. I certainly wouldn't expect the Vatican to OK birth control or hand out condoms as a way to address directly the issues faced by so many new converts, but I have to wonder if there's not a slightly different tack it could take to help people's livelihoods, as opposed to just "this is how you should behave, and if you get sick, rely on charity to help." But I wonder if that's something for the pope following Benedict XVI to try to address. Do you see the church ever shifting slightly to address the issues of the modern world, if only to strengthen its social justice/care for those who can't care for themselves mission?

David Von Drehle:


Northern Virginia: I just don't understand why some people in the "mainstream" want the Church to be something it's not. This is America, and we are free to hold our own views, but doesn't that apply to the Church as well? No one is going to force someone to be Catholic, but why ask the Church to not be faithful to what it believes?

Sorry, I had to vent!

David Von Drehle:


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: This hard guy/soft guy peddling reminds me of the media's gush over Andropov. Hardline KGB guy but he LOVES western jazz! Makes his own gelato! Reads Mark Twain! Oooohhh.

He turned out to be a criminal aparachik who mindlessly mandated a disfunctional, Stalinesque atmosphere until he mercifully moved on (departed this life).

Why should Ratzinger be anything but what he pushed himself off to be: a 18th century dogmatic hardliner? He's didn't run for the top spot by posing as Ms. Congenialty. Why should he change his spots now that he owns the keys to the kingdom?

Get a functional mind, media types.

Thanks much.

David Von Drehle:


Washington, D.C.: I think the point you make that the role of the Orthodox is virtually ignored in the United States is crucial. I think many Americans do not realize that the Vatican's ecumenical effort is focused on Constantinople far more than on Protestantism, and that as a matter of theology both the Catholics and the Orthodox view Protestantism as seriously heretical.

David Von Drehle:


Bethesda, Md.: It appears they wanted a transitional figure who would maintain the JP2 legacy and that at least the American Church reaction was not central in the thinking of the Conclave. But why not appoint someone like Arienze from Nigeria? Younger, just as orthodox but from Africa, with an engaging personality, and connections to a growing Church and a possible union point with the Worldwide Anglican Communion (also based in Nigeria and presently at odds with the American Church and the Archbishop of Canturbury)? In other words, where is the boldness and vision that led them to appoint JP2 in the first place?

David Von Drehle:


Washington, D.C.: This morning, E.J. Dionne cast Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as a bit of a maverick nonconformist, because he didn't mind people thinking he was wrong about bringing the church closer to its conservative ecumenical roots. You made much the same point about him not minding being unpopular. In the past few days I've heard people speculating that it's possible that a more conservative Pope could reinvigorate some American diocesees and actually help the priest shortage problem by reinspiring people who think that the American Catholic church has fallen away from the path it should be on.

What's your sense of how this Pope could positively affect some of the church's problems in this country? Do others feel that way? And (sorry for the pile-up) isn't it a bit of a straw man for people who favor keeping abortion legal to freak out over this guy's opinions on sexuality? It's not as though they've been getting a lot of help from the Vatican anyway. Catholics here and in Europe seem pretty content to make their own decisions on a lot of those issues regardless of the church's teachings.

washingtonpost.com: E.J. Dionne: Tests for an Unbending Pope..., (Post, April 20)

David Von Drehle:


Response to Anonymous: I understand what Anonymous was asking before in connection with the contraception issue, but why should ANY religion change its values just because its values may be unpopular? If a religion does that, it's not teaching what it believes God handed on.

David Von Drehle:


Philadelphia, Pa.: The lucky man Benedict XVI has a low bar to jump with the American people. All he has to do is smile to disarm us all!

On the one hand, it's frustrating following the American reaction because we tend to see things through our narrow lens: Issues that are central to us are globally peripheral; we have our "liberal/conservative" dialectic that doesn't fit Catholism either (JP II was both and neither by American standards).

On the other hand, it's authentically difficult for sentient American Catholics to think that the Holy Spirit guides the actions of all Cardinals at all times, given what we've witnessed ourselves. Who can blame us if we see the election of a Pope as protection of territory and resistence to the truth?

David Von Drehle:


Southern Maryland: Given Benedict XVI's reputation for doctrinal conservatism, what would happen if his papacy was like Nixon going to China? Would conservative Catholics be willing to accept reforms from him that they wouldn't from a new Pope with a more liberal history?

David Von Drehle:


Rockville, Md.: As long as they were going to pick a conservative, why in the world didn't they at least choose a man from South America or Africa?

But, as they have chosen someone who thinks Christians are the only people God loves, and that women and gays are less than equal, I can now categorically state that I've had it. It's good to know that the Episcopals don't subscribe to the "All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others" (Orwell) notion.

David Von Drehle:


David Von Drehle: And that gives you a sense of all the big thinking goning on out there!

Thanks again. Over and out.


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