Benedict XVI may be a new pope, but American Catholics have been fighting over him for decades. Championed by traditionalists, decried by modernizers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has played an intimate role, even from far-off Rome, in some of the fiercest disputes inside U.S. parishes, seminaries, Catholic universities, even barrooms.
As chief of the Vatican office that monitors orthodoxy, he stood up for the old ways from the old days. People who were reluctant to criticize the grandfatherly Pope John Paul II have long found it easier to make a menacing figure of a German cardinal with a name full of bristling consonants.
So the question yesterday among many American Catholics was: Can a divider become a uniter?
"He's the hero of one faction but not of the other one," said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America who specializes in tracking attitudes of American Catholics. As "the most-known entity on the whole list" of possible popes, Benedict XVI is likely to be "a polarizing figure, and the American church already has a problem with polarization," Hoge said.
Hoge's own polls have documented some of those divisions. While American Catholics widely agree on such issues as the severity of the priest child-abuse scandal and the need for more lay participation in church decision-making, they disagree on whether the church needs more innovation or more orthodoxy.
For example, the number of Catholics who told Hoge's researchers that the church needs more progressive sexual attitudes was statistically equal to the number who said that there are too many gay men in the priesthood.
Just days ago, some commentators were speculating that the next pope might be so focused on the developing world he would find such controversies among the relatively rich, educated and free-thinking American Catholics mystifying.
But no. Since the early 1980s, few controversies have cropped up in the U.S. church without Ratzinger in the fray. Usually he spoke in his official role as top man in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
From that post, he admonished Seattle's then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen for excessive liberalism in 1985, cracked down on the unorthodox teachings of the Rev. Charles E. Curran on birth control in 1986, and repeatedly condemned homosexual behavior as "an intrinsic evil" that could not be tolerated in Catholic ministries to gays and lesbians.
Last summer, Ratzinger entered an argument among U.S. bishops about whether Catholic politicians -- such as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), then running for president -- should be denied Holy Communion because of their support for abortion rights. "Consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" was a "grave sin" that must disqualify a Catholic from receiving the sacrament, Ratzinger wrote, and so is voting for such a politician out of support for abortion rights.
So the election of Benedict XVI provoked strong reactions. Such as this:
"My heart went down to my feet. I was so despondent," said Sister Jeannine Gramick of Hyattsville, who in 1999 was ordered by Ratzinger's Vatican bureau to stop ministering to gays. "It couldn't have been worse in terms of my own ministry and outreach to gays and lesbians" and to the U.S. church in general, especially its shortage of priests, she continued.
"I'm tickled pink," said Mark Shea, a founder of the popular Web site CatholicExchange.com and proprietor of the lively Web log "Catholic and Loving It!" He added, "I think Pope Benedict is a first-rate theologian. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people. . . . He's a far more nuanced thinker and pastor than the media characterizations of him have been capable of imagining. It's like they say in Hollywood: You're neither as good nor as bad as they say you are."