Almost three weeks after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, the international council of cardinals selected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, a close confidant of John Paul who is widely considered a hard-liner in terms of orthodoxy and doctrine, as the Roman Catholic Church’s 265th pontiff yesterday.
Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, was confirmed after two days in one of the shortest conclaves in the past century. History Prof. Brian Porter, an expert on the Catholic Church, said he did not expect the announcement for several more days.
“It was fast. I was really surprised,” he said, adding that the speed of Benedict’s election shows that he had more support among the cardinals than originally thought.
Before being elected pope, Benedict served as dean of the College of Cardinals and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he enforced Catholic orthodoxy and kept dissenting theologians in line. With his reputation as one of the Vatican’s most outspoken critics of liberalism within the church, Benedict’s election has dismayed some liberal Catholics and others who had hoped for a pontiff more open to dissenting views.
While experts say Benedict is unlikely to budge on some of the social issues for which John Paul was criticized — such as the role of women in the church, priestly celibacy and birth control — some students still hope for flexibility on the church’s teachings.
“The one thing that I don’t like about the Catholic Church is that priests can’t get married,” said LSA freshman Kirsten Rose, a Catholic. “I’ve heard that’s an issue being raised in the Vatican, and hopefully that can change.”
In his homily at the convocation that began the conclave, Benedict spoke out against critics of traditionalism.
“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism,” he said Monday. He went on to caution listeners against many secular ideologies, including agnosticism, atheism and relativism — the denial of the existence of absolute truth — saying that following these ideas is paramount to being “swept along by every wind of teaching.”
Despite this, Porter said the label of “conservative” is an inappropriate description of the new pontiff.
“Those labels are always really tricky when you’re talking about figures within the church,” he said. “On a lot of issues that we define as conservative within the United States, he wouldn’t fit that label. Certainly on issues of the poor, he is not conservative.”
However, within the context of the Catholic Church, Benedict is a traditionalist, Porter said.
“He’s not going be changing the policies of Pope John Paul II,” he said.
Some Catholic students are encouraged by the idea of Benedict continuing John Paul’s work.
Engineering senior Brian Reed, a Catholic who attends St. Mary’s Student Parish on Thompson Street, said he hopes the new pope picks up where John Paul left off. “I especially hope he continues encouraging youth and keeping the importance on the Eucharist where it belongs,” he said.
Elisabeth Mueller, also an Engineering senior and member of St. Mary’s, agreed, saying that although it will be a change to follow someone other than John Paul, Benedict’s traditionalism is not a problem.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to be legalistic, but the church should not be changing what they teach based on what society says,” Mueller said.
Other students were disappointed with the selection of the new pope, having hoped for the election of a pontiff who would pursue a more liberal stance on church doctrine concerning issues such as women’s rights.
RC sophomore Sara Curtin, a Catholic, said while she hoped for a more liberal pope, the election of a conservative pontiff was not unexpected.
“I would like to see a more liberal pope, but with the way the politics of the world are, I’m not surprised that they elected a more conservative cardinal to be pope,” she said. “I think they need to reconsider their stand on contraception and birth control methods … But I wish that they had made a different decision.”
Curtin added that she regrets that the church leadership does not do more to involve women in the church.
“The way things are looking, it looks like they are going to lessen the role of women in the church, and I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Curtin said.
LSA sophomore Daniel Green, who describes himself as “not very religious,” agreed, adding that he believes the cardinals should have elected a more liberal pontiff.
“It’s important for the pope to be much more liberal on issues like abortion and gay rights,” he said, adding that although many say Pope John Paul II did a lot of work on social issues like communism, he was obviously conservative on other social problems.
“I’m never very optimistic about the pope,” he said.
While John Paul was widely praised for his efforts to reach out to Jews, including his official apology in 2000 for the church’s past anti-Semitic actions, Benedict’s more conservative views on interfaith dialogue have caused some concern in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the University’s chapter of Hillel, said he hopes Benedict will continue the work started by John Paul. “We recognize that it was Cardinal Ratzinger who was the architect of the ideological policy to recognize and have full relations with Israel,” he said.
RC sophomore Monica Woll, chair of the governing council of Hillel, said Benedict’s participation with Nazi activities such as the Hitler Youth during World War II have also caused anxiety about the future of Jewish-Catholic relations.
“A lot of people are nervous only because he did have membership in Hitler Youth, although most people realize that was 60 years ago and he is most likely a different person today,” she said, adding that Benedict said in a recent interview that his membership in Hitler Youth was compulsory, and that during his service in the army he never fired a shot.
Despite these concerns, Miller said the pope’s efforts to reach out to Jews will be important to the maintenance of understanding between the two faiths which was started by John Paul.
“Catholic-Jewish relations are extremely important in our society, and we hope that the new pope will be our partner for peace, justice and the appreciation of each other’s faith traditions,” he said.
Father Tom McClain, pastor of St. Mary’s, said Benedict’s past service to the church has demonstrated that he is qualified to be Holy Father. In this position under John Paul, Benedict gained great power, rising to be the second most powerful man in the Vatican, Porter said.
Even before John Paul’s papacy, Benedict was a key contributor to several important doctrinal proclamations.
“He speaks many languages and was very instrumental in the Council of the Vatican II,” McClain said, adding that the pontiff is likely to follow in the spirit of the Vatican II, the most recent and most dynamic church council in the past century. The Vatican II introduced major reforms in 1965 and set precedents allowing the use of vernacular language in Mass, and officially condemning the anti-Semitism of World War II.
According to Porter, the main issue facing the Catholic Church today is a major demographic shift in church membership — the decline of the church in Europe and the rising numbers of Catholics in the Third World.
Sixty percent of the world’s Catholics live in non-industrial countries, Porter said, adding that despite this high number, almost all of the church’s wealth comes from the United States and Europe.
“The selection of a European is an indication that they are not about to write off Europe,” he said.
Still, the new pope’s views are not in line with much of the popular opinion in the West, Porter said. Whether or not Benedict’s papacy can save the church in Europe is still up in the air.
McClain agreed. “It remains to be seen how Benedict the XVI will bring his style to the world. It’s a matter of personal charisma, and we need to give him some time to establish that for himself. He has a hard act to follow.”
—The Associated Press contributed to this article