New Pope Elected

Father Joseph Komonchak
Professor of Theology, Catholic University
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; 4:00 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 Latest: Benedict XVI Assumes Papacy (Post, April 19)

Father Joseph Komonchak, professor of theology at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, was online Tuesday, April 19, at 4 p.m. ET to discuss the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: 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.


Washington, D.C.: Does the new Pope speak English?

Father Joseph Komonchak: Yes, he speaks English quite well.


Bowie, Md.: What is the significance of the choice of the name "Benedict?"

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think the name Benedict was chosen as a certain act of independence. He went back beyond John Paul II and Paul VI and John XXIII, but also back beyond Pius XII. It is a way of indicating that he will be a pope in his own manner.


Cambridge, Mass.: Do we know which of the fifteen previous Benedicts the new pope has chosen his name in honor of? If not, can we guess? What is the significance of the choice?

Father Joseph Komonchak: Benedict XV was pope from 1914 to 1922. He did a great deal to try to bring the First World War to an end, and he was a great protagonist of ordaining indigenous people to the priesthood and episcopate.

But perhaps the new pope simply wanted to recall the great heritage of St. Benedict and the Benedictines.


Lake Mary, Fla.: What reasons would prompt the election of an elderly man to the position of Pope? We have just watched an elderly man in the office ... why not a younger man?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think they may have elected him because he is an old man, and his pontificate is not likely to last long. It's as if the Church needs to catch its breath after the powerful papacy of JP II.


Baltimore, Md.: How will he address the declining priest population in the U.S.?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't think he himself can do much about the vocations-crisis in the US. I do think the question of married priests will come up under his pontificate.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What is the story about the new pope's experience in the Hitler Youth? I've heard varying accounts about his level of participation.

Father Joseph Komonchak: The new pope was born in April 1927, which means that he was a young teenager as the war was coming to an end. The Germans were dragooning any healthy male into some sort of service and, Ratzinger and his classmates were drafted to run an anti-aircraft unit. I think that this is all that people are talking about it. Incidentally, he was briefly confined in an American POW camp.


Arlington, Va.: What kinds of ceremonies or rituals occur to install a new pope? Have they already occurred for Pope Benedict XVI or will they happen in the coming days?

Father Joseph Komonchak: There will be a formal rite of installation (I don't think it's called a "coronation" any more), but I haven't heard of any date for this. But in terms of the full powers of the office, he already can exercise them, and doesn't have to wait for that ceremony.


New York, N.Y.: What will the new pope do with liberal theologians in the Catholic Church?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't know how to answer this question. On the one hand, it was his office that disciplined a good number of theologians; on the other hand, I've heard that he was often a voice of restraint in the discussions of such matters in the Vatican.


Washington, D.C.: Has he made any statements regarding the recent sex abuse controversy in the states? Do you think he can/will take any action to prevent future abuses and punish perpetrators?

Father Joseph Komonchak: In the Stations of the Cross that he wrote for this year's ceremony in the Coliseum, he spoke very strongly, pessimistically, about "filth" in the Church, and I think he was probably referring to that awful scandal. The issue in many respects is a local one, in that bishops have to exercise their role more attentively and forcefully.


Hagatna, Guam: St. Malachy prophetically predicted that the next pope will come from the Order of St. Benedict, what religious order did you come from?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't put any stock in alleged prophecies about the popes. Ratzinger, of course, is not Benedictine. He was a diocesan priest.


Boston, Mass.: How do you see this new pope reaching out to those who are disenfranchised with the leadership for their polarizing stance on social issues such as married priests, female priests, etc.? Did we just take one step back or was this a parallel move that mimics John Paul's papal legacy?

Father Joseph Komonchak: This is a good question. His own theological positions are pretty clear and strong. I don't expect him to change any Church teachings that were considered settled. There could be a difference in the way he approaches the issues.


San Francisco, Calif.: Given Benedict XVI's publicly-expressed views banning communion for Catholic office seekers who support Roe v. Wade, do you expect him to excommunicate Catholic judges who enforce Roe v. Wade? Under his papacy, could a Catholic in good conscience take the oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, since it has been interpreted in Roe to allow abortion choices?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't believe he has ever publicly advocated excommunicating politicians who support Roe v. Wade. In fact, the Vatican's position did not support that of the few US bishops who threatened that action.


Rosslyn, Va.: A few articles in recent days have stated that the next pope may be European to shore up the European Catholic church? Do you think this pope will be able to accomplish that or is he too controversial/conservative?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think that the new Pope is very concerned about the state of the Church in Europe; in fact, it's been a major preoccupation of his ever since he was a young theologian. The question is: How best to address the problem? I think he's going to have to work on getting an audience to listen to him. Merely negative indictments of the situation will not be enough.


Knoxville, Tenn.: To what extent, if any, do you think that Benedict XVI's new perspective as universal pastor might change his approach to internal church discipline?

Father Joseph Komonchak: This is a key question. Entering upon such an office can definitely change a person. You suddenly realize that you can't just spout off on any topic as you like, that you have to study, and to listen to other voices. I think that there are good reasons to hope that he will grow into the role. Colleagues who have worked with him on the International Theological Commission speak of his openness in such contexts.


Raleigh, N.C.: How might Pope Benedict react to the growing ecumenical movement with many Christian denominations sharing communion with Catholics, such as the Lutherans, and such?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to the ecumenical movement. It was while he was at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that important ecumenical advances were made with regard to the Lutherans (on justification) and with some Oriental Churches on the doctrine of Christ and the Eucharist. He was critical of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues. So the record is mixed.


Washington, D.C.: Women were first to announce the resurrection, and a woman bore Jesus, but we are not considered fit to consecrate. I left the church when I realized that I was considered second-class by mere virtue of my ovaries. Why is this so hard for the clergy to see?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think this over-simplifies the issue. The issue, in his mind, has to do with fundamental symbolism involved in the relation between Christ and the Church.


Washington, D.C.: How do you feel the new Pope will deal with poverty, population growth, and the spread of HIV in third world countries?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think any pope will have to deal with these issues. He put out a very critical document on the theology of liberation but then, at JP II's order, a more conciliatory one that stressed the need to pursue social justice. But in his own mind, he doesn't like immediate leaps from a Gospel saying to a concrete political solution, but thinks that this passage needs to include a personal and political ethic.


Emmitsburg, Md.: Based upon your knowledge of this new pope's prior actions, do you feel he will undertake the same aggressive outreach activities of his predecessor in terms of travel?

Father Joseph Komonchak: The new pope is personally a shy man, who will not have the personal charisma of JP II. I don't think you can expect the great spectacle-occasions we became used to under his predecessor. I doubt that he will travel as much.


Richmond, Va.: Nothing personal, Father, but your comments and answers here suggest you aren't thrilled with the result of the conclave. Why so glum?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I'm not so glum. But I've studied Ratzinger's thought for some twenty years and I have some serious reservations about his method and about some of his own positions, criticisms I've expressed in print, so this is no secret. I'm hoping that he will not make some of these personal positions of his into official Catholic doctrine.


Madison< Wisc.: How will he shape dialogue with Muslims?

Father Joseph Komonchak: Another very important question. JP II was a pioneer in this area, and it has to be pursued or else the "clash of civilizations" will become a war of civilizations. The new pope will have to overcome the negative statements he made recently when the question of Turkey's joining the European Union came up, and he publicly opposed it on the grounds that Turkey's culture (Islamic, of course) has not traditionally been part of the European experience.


Washington, D.C.: How old was Pope John Paul II when he was elected?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I think he was around 58.


Bethesda, Md.: There was some concern that the late JP2 was too incapacitated in his last years due to illness to provide the leadership the church needed. Has Pope Benedict XVI given any indication of his thoughts on the matter?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't know whether he has spoken on this issue, but it is one that the new pope will have to address right away. An important US cardinal told me that there is a big gap in canon law on this question, and it needs to be addressed, and he thinks it will be.


Alexandria, Va.: When they speak of "transitional pope," what is being transited? Are we to assume that the next pope would be a "permanent" pope?

Father Joseph Komonchak: It usually refers to a short pontificate between long ones. John XXIII gave "transitional pope" a quite different meaning when he called the Second Vatican Council.


Washington, D.C.: What are the reservations that you have about Benedict XVI? Could you point us to some of your writings on him?

Father Joseph Komonchak: They mostly have to do with questions about Church life and structures: e.g., his views on the universal Church vs. the local Church; the role of bishops' conferences; etc.


Washington, D.C.: Giving the age of Pope Benedict XVI. How is his health?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I don't know the state of his health. I had heard that he was hoping to be relieved of his post at the CDF, but I don't think he had this in mind!


Washington, D.C.: Are there some books, writings, or speeches written by the pope that give us some idea what his interests are?

Father Joseph Komonchak: He has many books. The best introduction to his thought is "Introduction to Christianity." But he has also published a few autobiographical reflections and given several interviews.


Clarendon, Va.: I am concerned that under Ratzinger those who are Catholic but also pro choice, homosexual, etc., will not feel welcome in the Catholic Church. What do you think?

Father Joseph Komonchak: I am sure that personally he would like the people you mentioned to feel welcome in the Church, but I don't think he's going to want to change any Church teachings.

_______________________ That concludes our discussion with Father Joseph Komonchak. Thank you for joining us.


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