(ABP) — The election of the hard-line German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to continue the conservative doctrinal and moral arc of predecessor John Paul II but may hurt chances for closer ties with non-Catholic Christians.
Ratzinger, 78, a close advisor of John Paul II and head of the Vatican office that enforces church doctrine, was dubbed “the great inquisitor” by his critics. But his conservative credentials brought endorsements from many American evangelicals and conservative Christians, who expect to find the new pope an ally on moral issues like homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.
“This is a reaffirmation of … Pope John Paul II's policies in all those areas,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics agency.
“We rejoice in the choice because he's going to hold the line and he's not going to allow the liberal element in the Catholic Church to reverse any of those things,” said evangelical theologian Norman Geisler of Charlotte, N.C., co-author of “Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.”
But the April 19 election of Ratzinger — who took the papal moniker Pope Benedict XVI — may prove to be “good news and bad news for evangelicals,” said Baptist ethicist and Vatican observer David Gushee. In a 2000 doctrinal declaration, Ratzinger defended “the truthfulness of the Catholic faith … in a way that is fairly stark,” Gushee said.
The document, “Declaration Dominus Iesus,” issued by the Ratzinger-led Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said Protestant and evangelical traditions are “gravely deficient” and “not churches in the proper sense.” Catholics alone have the “fullness of the means of salvation,” the document said.
“So the prospect for evangelical dialogue looks a bit different if he retains that line,” Gushee said. “On the other hand, dialogue does not require the sacrifice of one's tradition.”
Ratzinger, a papal front-runner considered by many to be a transitional pope, was chosen on only the fourth ballot, less than 24 hours after the 114 participating cardinals opened their conclave in Rome. A two-thirds majority was required.
A day earlier, in a mass at the Vatican, Ratzinger denounced postmodernism, adding, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.” He praised Catholics who are labeled fundamentalists for “having a clear faith based on the creed of the church.”
“What he's going to come down strong on is absolute truth,” predicted Frank Ruff, a Catholic priest in Kentucky who has served two stints as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' official liaison to the Southern Baptist Convention. “He is going to follow the principle of John Paul II on that.”
Gushee, who participated with Ratzinger in a Vatican conference on moral theology in March, described the new pope as “a theologian of very keen intellect who is likely to maintain John Paul II's emphasis on doctrinal fidelity and clarity in the Catholic tradition.”
“Evangleicals, of which I count myself one, always appreciate doctrinal precision and clarity, and I'd also include moral clarity,” said Gushee, professor of moral philosophy at Union University, a Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. Those who found themselves in agreement with John Paul II on moral issues likely will agree with Benedict as well, he said.
But on relations with non-Catholics, Benedict's conservatism might bring more isolation. After the pro-ecumenical reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s, both John Paul and Benedict represent “something of a pulling back,” Gushee said.
Lacking the charismatic personality of John Paul II, Benedict may find it harder to enlist good feelings from non-Catholics or recreate the climate of ecumenical openness that developed under John Paul II in spite his conservative theology, several Vatican observers predicted.
“I think there's going to be clearly a different emphasis,” predicted Joseph Favazza, a former Catholic priest and now professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. “I think John Paul II forged ecumenical relations based on his personality, not on his theology. While he wanted to create better relationship with the Protestants and the evangelicals and the Orthodox and the Anglicans, in point of fact, when push came to shove, he was not … willing to be a compromiser when he would need to be if full communion was to be established.”
Benedict might be even more inclined to point out doctrinal differences with other Christians and progressive Catholics, rather than look beyond them, as was the pattern of John Paul II, Favazza said. “What we won't see with Ratzinger is that outreach sort of personality that we saw with John Paul II. “
At 78 — 20 years older than John Paul II at his election — Benedict is not expected to serve nearly as long, and likely won't create the kind of legacy left by John Paul, who served 26 years.
Favazza and Ruff said Benedict likely will serve as a “transitional” pope, providing a buffer between John Paul II and those who will follow.
“That seems pretty obvious — somebody to carry on for the time, not expecting him to initiate anything new,” Ruff said. “I don't know how much reaching out he's going to do.”
But Ruff and Gushee said the papacy might turn Benedict into a different man.
“John Paul II brought him in to run one specific department, and that's what he did,” Ruff said, referring to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. “… By the definition of the job, which was to try to preserve orthodoxy, he naturally caused some divisions.”
“Now he's universal pastor,” Ruff continued. “And I think we might see a different Joseph Ratzinger. We might see a side of him that was hidden before. … Now his job is to create unity in the church.”
“You never really know what they will do in that different office,” agreed Gushee. Although Ratzinger is a “quieter” personality than John Paul, “he had a nice kind of presence about him, he had a pastoral presence,” Gushee said, recalling his recent Vatican meetings.
Despite his hard-line reputation, Ratzinger's selection of Benedict XVI as his papal name may signal his intention to become a reconciler. The last Pope Benedict served as a reconciler and diplomat during World War I. Popes often choose names to align themselves with papal traditions they hope to follow.
Favazza, the former priest, said he is hopeful Benedict “will rise to the occasion and be a reconciler.”
“But he's not going to wake up tomorrow and be a different person,” Favazza cautioned. “It's hard not to be pessimistic. One can only hope. It really puts one's faith in the Holy Spirit front and center.”