ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, is not afraid to be unpopular. That is why he was elected pope Tuesday. It is also why he will face excruciating difficulties in holding together the most ethnically, geographically and ideologically diverse religious institution in the world.
The simple political truth is that Ratzinger won election because he had a base. To say that is not inappropriately political but an acknowledgment of the obvious. The new pope was supported from the outset by a substantial cadre of traditionalist cardinals who believe, with him, that the church's main task -- and the key to its survival -- is to present an uncompromising alternative to modern secularism.
Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican Tuesday.
(L'osservatore Romano via AP)
The obligation of the Christian, Ratzinger has said, "is to recover the capacity for nonconformism." Just because the world (or at least certain wealthy, educated parts of it) is going in one direction does not mean that the church should follow. On the contrary, he and those who follow him believe that the key to Catholic survival in the face of militant Islam and an evangelical Christianity that is growing rapidly in Latin America is to offer an alternative that is unembarrassed in declaring itself as the true path to God. Some may be bothered by that. Ratzinger is not.
In the mid-1980s, for a profile of Ratzinger I was writing for the New York Times Magazine, he answered written questions and offered this intriguing, unbending response to a question about his stern public image: "If it is true that a Christian faith taken seriously means nonconformity with a not inconsiderable number of contemporary social standards, then a more-or-less negative image is unavoidable. Nonconformists, after all, who enjoy general applause, are somewhat ridiculous figures, or at least unconvincing."
The new pope is definitely not a ridiculous figure. But he has a great deal of convincing to do. One can be absolutely certain that at the moment his name was announced yesterday before the crowd that had run down Roman streets to pack St. Peter's Square, liberal Catholics around the world were filled with anxiety and foreboding. Will the new pope's vision of a pure, hard and, if necessary, smaller corps of believers leave them out? Does he want them to leave? Will he make them want to go?
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger presided over the disciplining of theologians whose views he believed were outside the range of acceptable Catholic opinion. His targets were North American liberals such as the Rev. Charles Curran, who dissented on issues related to sexuality and gender, and South American liberation theologians such as the Rev. Leonardo Boff, whom Ratzinger viewed as too enchanted with Marxism.
At a moment when liberals and moderates in the church want to open questions (such as whether only celibate men may be priests), Ratzinger thinks it is time to end uncertainty. Because of his crackdowns, the new pope will take the seat of Saint Peter with an exceptionally large battalion of public enemies inside the church. "Joseph Ratzinger is afraid," the liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung declared in 1985. "And just like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, he fears nothing more than freedom."
Thus the question: Why did the College of Cardinals make such a controversial choice, and with such dispatch? The simple answer is that the 78-year-old pope is a transitional figure. Barring a medical miracle, it is likely that a new pontiff will be elected in a few years. One need not be Machiavelli to suggest that potential popes sitting in the Sistine Chapel decided they did not have the votes or the standing to make it this time, and would use a Ratzinger papacy to prepare for the next.
But the political realist's explanation does not do full justice to the radical nature of this choice. What is happening inside the church is a slow erosion of the progressive hopes created by the Second Vatican Council, often said to have opened the church to the world. The forces on the rise believe, as the conservative historian James Hitchcock once put it, that the core issue before Catholics is whether they will confront modernity or capitulate to it.
Pope Benedict XVI was elected because he had a clear sense of where the church needs to go. He will make liberal Catholics and many moderates uncomfortable. They should see his election as a sign of how urgent it is to revive -- and make credible -- Vatican II's hopeful vision of a church that has much to teach the modern world, and much to learn from it, too.