To many observers, the hopes of progressive Roman Catholics were dashed this week with the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Patriarch of the West. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the new Pope Benedict XVI was nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” for his sometimes-aggressive defense of conservative Catholic doctrine, especially with regard to birth control, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. He continued the fight against moral relativism started under earlier popes and was often seen as less-than-gentle in his views on other religions.
But as many papal pundits will attest, views and politics inside the Vatican are often not as clear as they seem. When the conclave elected John XXIII in 1958, they expected a short and uneventful papacy; what they received was one of the most beloved, radical and reform-minded pontiffs in the history of the Church. Paul VI, John XXIII’s successor, was expected to be a more conservative pope, but his conservative nature did not extend to rolling back the changes of the Second Vatican Council, much to the dismay of many within the Church.
It is highly unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI will become another John XXIII, or the Paul VI that electors had hoped for. He has already taken steps to signal that he will continue following the footsteps of his predecessor and has made it clear that he will not give in to pressure to make fundamental changes to Church dogma or change the Church’s stance on birth control, same-sex marriage or abortion.
But popes do not work like politicians in the United States. They do not have the authority to fundamentally change long-held beliefs and dogma, nor do they have the power to take the Church in radically new directions. John XXIII was able to convene the Second Vatican Council only because it was already in the air.
And, contrary to speculation in the United States and Europe, a Third Vatican Council is not in the air. The concerns that many in the First World consider of paramount importance for the Church are barely even being discussed in other parts of the world. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage, ordination of women, abortion and priestly celibacy all take a backseat to issues of poverty and health that plague the Third World. It is the “Global South” that dominates world Catholic politics. At the start of the last century, 70 percent of Catholics were found in Europe. Now, 42 percent are in Latin America, 12 percent in Africa and 11 percent in Asia.
Roman Catholics in the United States should not expect significant changes from the direction laid out by John Paul II. During his tenure in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger helped to clarify and address most of the concerns facing the faithful during John Paul II’s reign. As a close aide and ally of the pontiff, Cardinal Ratzinger is the theological heir to John Paul II’s legacy.
His conservative nature on some of the more hot-button issues, however, masks his conciliatory views. Pope Benedict XVI is likely to more thoroughly engage in dialogue with the Eastern and Russian Orthodox churches. His ecumenical writings have been part of the driving force behind his predecessor’s attempts at reconciliation with other Catholic churches and outreach to Protestant denominations.
How successful these attempts will be is still up in the air. Pope Benedict XVI has always been, first and foremost, an academic man. While his writings are well-reasoned and considered, they lack the tact and approach that is sometimes necessary and often insists upon the primacy of the papacy. This has been a sore spot with the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches.
It is unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI will reverse the tradition of priestly celibacy, but it is probable that he will continue to relax the restriction of celibacy that had started since Vatican II. Since the council, married deacons have been permitted and married priests from other denominations with a direct apostolic line, which include all Orthodox churches and the Anglican and Episcopal churches, may remain married when they convert. In addition, married protestant ministers from outside the apostolic line may apply for the priesthood and will be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Cardinal Ratzinger was key in clarifying the ordination of married Protestant ministers and the rules by which converted priests from churches out of communion with Rome may be accepted. He was also influential in affirming the right of Eastern rite churches within the Roman Catholic Church to ordain married men. These churches agree theologically with Rome and admit to papal primacy but do not adhere to the Latin liturgical rite.
Most likely, the new pope will not concern himself with progressive issues. Instead, he will focus on peace between nations and religions. With growing tension among the Big Three faiths, Benedict XVI will rise and fall on his ability to appeal to the commonality of the religions. At least in this, his background as an academic and as “God’s Rottweiler” cannot be used to gauge success. After all, who would have thought a bookish Polish cardinal would have been influential in the downfall of Communism?
Charles Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in literature.