The death of Pope John Paul II provided liberal American Catholics with a brief moment of hope. Finally, the conflict between celebrating the modernist' papacy that helped fight a winning battle against communism, reached out to Judaism, Orthodox Christians, and Third World Catholics in unprecedented ways, and oversaw a period of spiritual renewal and condemning the reactionary' papacy that rejected contraception and abortion, turned away from liberation theology, refused to entertain reforms of the priesthood, and demonized homosexuals could be resolved. With the first Polish cardinal lying in state in the Vatican, reformers could at last embrace the positive aspects of his reign and look forward to a left-wing champion of their causes emerging out of the conclave to counteract the negatives.
Their hopes, to say the least, were not realized. Liberals - and certain conservative Maroon columnists - have widely bemoaned the coronation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith served as the doctrinal conscience for the church, as Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger had previously gained attention for his condemnation of moral relativism at the opening mass of the conclave, and in America for criticizing the U.S. legal system for aggressive treatment of priests accused of sexual abuse and for supporting the denial of communion to pro-choice politicians. The appointment of a staunchly conservative Vatican insider seems to many to have closed the window of opportunity for change in the Catholic Church.
Yet, it may be worth withholding judgment. There is some reason to believe that Benedict XVI will not be quite the reactionary disaster that he appears.
We must bear in mind that the election of a pope is unlike any other election in the world, simply because one can make a reasonable assumption that power politics is of secondary concern to all involved. A cardinal, first and foremost, is a believer in a higher power, and as such someone who may be judged more on what they believe than on their actions. Benedict's early public statements on what he believes have been, if not conciliatory, far from horrifying. His agenda' features such critical tenets as improved dialogue with those of other religions and alleviating poverty in the developing world. While not the first priority of left-wingers, these are worthy progressive goals for the Vatican.
Ratzinger's relationship with John Paul II is also worthy of some consideration. Benedict XVI was, in terms of Church doctrine, the late Pope's conscience and right hand. From this, we can extrapolate that his positions on the issues that have evoked the most debate in the unusually liberal American Catholic community, such as equality for women both in the priesthood and in society, celibacy, contraception, divorce, the treatment of homosexuals, abortion, and what constitutes an acceptable level of dissent in theological debate, will be similar to those of his predecessor. The work of John Paul II in these areas has served to freeze them where they stood when he first came into control of the Vatican. One can reasonably expect Benedict XVI to continue his trend. However, fears of total rollback are probably misplaced. His views have been well-represented in Vatican decision-making at the highest level for almost two decades. As such, it is doubtful that policies currently controlling Catholic doctrine are dissimilar to his own. While unproductive for reformers, this papacy should not see a worsening of the situation. Seemingly extremist actions concering many of theses issues, most notably his work in silencing dissident Catholics such as Charles Curran and Hans Kung, must be considered in the context of his position as Defender of the Faith. The position, one essentially responsible for holding Catholics in line, by nature is controversial and divisive. The same man, given the awesome responsibility of leading all Catholics, from the generally doctrinaire groups in Latin America and Africa to the more secular and inclusive communities in Western Europe and the United States, may prove to be far more compromising.
While this will not likely provide little comfort to reformers, many Americans may find themselves pleased with some of his ideas, most notably his reported opposition to the intermingling of secular government and religion.
The new pope's position on another linchpin issue to American Catholics is slightly more concerning. As Defender of the Faith, Ratzinger characterized the sexual abuse crisis in the Church as a press conspiracy, and claimed that criminal prosecution of accused priests was actually making matters worse. As recently as 2001, he stood in support of the continuation of the Church's policy of silence on these accusations. While this is certainly not what one would hope for out of a man expected to be a moral influence on the world, it is important to note again that this were the statements of a cardinal, and a cardinal with the duty of defending the church at that. Beyond this, with no disrespect intended to the late Karol Wojtyla, it is difficult to see how this situation could possibly be made worse.
Moreover, however conservative this new pope may be, his (enshrinement) may not be indicative of a wider rightward swing within the church. To this end, it is important to consider Benedict XVI's advanced age. While he is in good health, at 78 the length of his papacy will clearly not approach that of his predecessor. He has been characterized as a transitional figure, but a more accurate description may be a stopgap. It would be unsurprising to see another conclave before the end of the decade. In this election, just two out of 117 cardinals had been eligible to participate in voting for the last pope. In all likelihood, the bulk of this group of electors will still be eligible to pick Benedict's replacement. The reformers in the College of Cardinals will have another opportunity to place a moderate, such as seventy year-old Brazillian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, at the helm of the Church. Moreover, beyond politics, the critical strike against the relatively liberal Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga was his age, a mere 62 years. Time, and the growing need to accommodate Latin American and African Catholics who make up an ever-increasing percentage of the Church, may in fact be on Maradiaga's side. Ratzinger's election should not be seen as a sign that the College of Cardinals does not support reform in the long run for this reason alone. Power politics may be secondary in the conclave, but one cannot discount it entirely.
As a pro-choice, pro-gay and women's rights Jewish liberal with a deeply held conviction of the freedom to dissent from doctrine, I will admit to trepidation about the coming reign of Benedict XVI. However, like it or not, for the immediate future this man will be the spiritual guide for more than a billion people. Instead of regretting what we cannot accomplish in the next few years, the best course of action for those who share my beliefs may be to look to what we can. If the widely lionized John Paul II could have flaws, his successor is sure to have benefits.