When the white smoke cleared over the Vatican on April 19, German theologian Joseph Ratzinger had been elected to replace Pope John Paul II as supreme pontiff of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
And while the crowds in St. Peter's Square erupted in joy, Roman Catholic liberals groaned in despair. "A catastrophe," said ecumenical activist Bernd Goehring of the election of his fellow German. "Not the pope that we would ideally like," said Joelle Battestini, convener of the group Ordination of Catholic Women. "A triumph for the dogmatic, capitalist right," said liberation theologian Ruben Dri. "Many people feel the new pope will not address the modern problems facing the Catholic church," said Canadian columnist Rochelle Squires.
Why their despair? The new pope is a man who rails against "the dictatorship of relativism." He dismays ecumenicists by insisting that Christ is the only way to salvation. He is heckled by gays for teaching that homosexuality is sinful. He says that there can be no human rights without the right to life. He has said that pro-abortion politicians should not be given communion and that voting for candidates because they are pro-abortion is a sin.
In an Easter meditation just weeks ago, referring to the sex- and child-abuse scandals that have wracked American Catholicism, then-Cardinal Ratzinger exclaimed, "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him!"
In his homily to the conclave of Cardinals just prior to its voting in a prelate, he decried the "anything goes" mentality of contemporary thought and called for an "adult faith" that withstands secular ideologies. He even dared to say a good word for fundamentalism.
"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church," he said, "is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards."
The modern world, he said, has jumped "from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism." Now, he said, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."
In his previous position, Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an institution once called the Holy Office of the Inquisition. His responsibility was to enforce Catholic doctrine. One of his projects was to crack down on the religion faculties of Catholic universities, especially in America, ridding them of pro-abortion theology professors and mandating adherence to church teachings.
Even Pope John Paul II-widely beloved throughout the world-sometimes was accused of not doing enough to address the theological and moral drift within the church. He came to depend on his close friend as his theological enforcer, playing bad cop to John Paul's good cop. Liberal Catholics sometimes called him "God's rottweiler."
This new pope was the first German elected to that office since Leo IX in 1049. He was born in 1927 in Bavaria. At 14, he, along with all of his schoolmates, was forced to join the Hitler Youth. But his membership was not voluntary, his family was openly anti-Nazi, and after being drafted into Hitler's army, he deserted. The left will be sure to bring up his membership in the Hitler Youth. He was ordained a priest in 1951, earned a doctorate, and served on the faculties of several German universities, where he made his reputation as a distinguished theologian. He served as the archbishop of Munich and was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, one of only three eligible to vote at the conclave who had not been appointed by John Paul II.
Popes choose a new name upon accession to the office. Why "Benedict"? The name comes from the Latin word for "blessing." Benedict XV, who had a reputation as a liberal, was pope during World War I, which ushered in the catastrophes of the modern era. Perhaps Benedict XVI envisions himself as someone who, at the beginning of this century, will attempt to undo them.
Before his death, Pope John Paul II agreed to appear this summer at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. When his successor keeps that pledge-as he promises to do-it will mark more than a papal visit. It will be a homecoming.
The new pope may speak 10 languages, but he is the son of a Bavarian police officer, came of age in Nazi Germany, and served as a priest in Cologne.
Long-time UPI Religious Affairs editor Uwe Siemon-Netto, also Bavarian-born but a Lutheran and Reformation scholar, told WORLD that if the German prelate is Panzer-like on doctrine, as the German press claims, it might be the thrust needed.
WORLD: What's significant about a German pope?
SIEMON-NETTO: Since 1968 the neo-Marxist left has infiltrated every facet of European life, including church life. But recent opinion polls show an increased spiritual yearning among Germans, especially in the east where now 24 percent-few enough!-describe their faith as "very important" compared with only 14 percent in 1993.
We are now in a situation that is very analogous to the 16th century, where you had pockets of healthy community, but in reality the wide countryside was paganized. You have to start ex nihilo. You have to rebuild Europe altogether.
WORLD: Why not choose a prelate from the global south, where churches are growing?
SIEMON-NETTO: The pope is not supposed to reflect the population but to reflect the will of God. The church is growing in Latin America and Asia without a Latin American or Asian pope, thank you very much.
WORLD: What's a good Lutheran to make of a German pope?
SIEMON-NETTO: This good Lutheran is highly aware of the fruitful alliance between confessional Lutherans (Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind) and conservative Catholics in their struggle against first the Nazi tyranny, then against communism, and now against what Ratzinger calls "the dictatorship of relativism."
You could do worse than have a first-rate Catholic theologian who is also familiar with Reformation theology and an Augustine scholar. I believe he is too straight and Germanic to make the ecumenical mistakes made by John Paul II, such as praying in a mosque.
His family was very much like mine. His father was a low-ranking village cop who moved to avoid being promoted and thereby corrupted by the Nazi regime. Before my 10th birthday I was notified to report to the Hitler Youth Party. There was no escaping unless you took enormous chances. He had the audacity to excuse himself from the Youth Party. He deserted from the army. He experienced national socialism as evil. And he has watched the decline of Christianity as a result of the relativism that followed.