Pope Benedict Bears Softer Demeanor Than Expected

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Many Roman Catholics in the United States expected Pope Benedict XVI would immediately begin to enforce a rigid orthodoxy after ascending to the papacy in June. But observers see a difference between the actions of former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger and his new role as pope.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, it's been eight months since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, which delighted conservatives and dismayed liberals. Many Roman Catholics in this country expected Pope Benedict XVI would immediately begin to enforce orthodox views. But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the new pope has sent mixed signals so far.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

It billowed from the Vatican; first a confusing gray, then white, the smoke that signaled a new leader in the Catholic Church.

Unidentified Man: (Latin spoken)

HAGERTY: `We have a pope,' the official announced. And as millions of spectators held their breath, he uttered a familiar name.

Unidentified Man: (Latin spoken)

HAGERTY: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which was once called the Universal Inquisition, had become the leader of the Catholic Church. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict the XVI was well-known, and not for his easygoing ways.

Father THOMAS REESE (Former Editor, America): What people knew was this kind of caricature of him as the grand inquisitor.

HAGERTY: Thomas Reese is a former editor of the Catholic magazine, America. He says many liberal American Catholics worried about the choice. The new pope is as theologically conservative as Pope John Paul II but without the charisma. He holds strong views on homosexuality, birth control and women clergy. One British paper dubbed him `God's rottweiler'.

Fr. REESE: And when they saw him on television, the smiling, happy, self-deprecating pastor, it didn't compute. So I think he got a fresh start.

HAGERTY: And so did Tom Reese. Reese was removed from his position as editor of America because the Vatican felt the magazine was too liberal. Reese, who declines to talk about his dismissal, quips that he was the last victim of Cardinal Ratzinger rather than the first victim of Pope Benedict because his firing was already in the works. Richard Gaillardetz, who teaches Catholic theology at the University of Toledo in Ohio, thought this was a first of many warning shots to liberals.

Mr. RICHARD GAILLARDETZ (University of Toledo): There were some expectations, fears on the progressive side, hopes on the conservative side, that Benedict would really crack down, that there'd be a kind of purging of, you know, theological faculties of dissenting theologians and dissident priests and so on and so forth. That largely has not happened.

HAGERTY: In fact, Pope Benedict startled many when he invited Hans Kuhn to dinner in September. Kuhn, who disagrees with the church's position on papal infallibility, birth control and homosexuality, is the church's most famous dissident theologian and a man that John Paul II had refused to meet.

This dichotomy would run through the early months of the papacy as the pope undergoes a transformation from Cardinal Ratzinger, the policeman of the faith, to Benedict, a pope for the world. Consider, for example, his attitude toward other faiths. Cardinal Ratzinger deemed other religions, quote, "gravely deficient" and said that most Protestant denominations were not really churches. But in August, Pope Benedict traveled to Cologne and visited a synagogue and a mosque.

The broader purpose of his visit to Germany was World Youth Day where hundreds of thousands of young people waited for hours in their jeans in the hot August sun to see the new pope. He looked like their grandfather and his message was stern. He did not explicitly mention sexual ethics, but everyone got the point.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: That freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness so that we ourselves can become true and good.

HAGERTY: And he warned his audience against a personalized faith that has few rules. Richard Gaillardetz.

Mr. GAILLARDETZ: And I think the pope's responding to that and he's saying you can't have a kind of do-it-yourself, cobble together your own little spiritual quest. You need to be part of a larger community of believers and which challenges you not to just have religion provide the things you want but maybe to call you to the changes you need.

HAGERTY: As the pope traveled Europe, Americans were hearing rumors of a secret Vatican document. The document would spell out whether homosexuals could enter the priesthood. Finally, in November, the Vatican released the two-page statement. Men with deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, it said, could not enter seminary and become priests. Many American clerics and faithful were distraught. Conservatives, like Joseph Fessio, the provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, said the document was long overdue.

Father JOSEPH FESSIO (Ave Maria University): I don't look upon it as much as a crackdown as simply truth in advertising. If someone is going to be a Catholic theologian, then publicly rejects church teaching, it's got to be corrected.

HAGERTY: Richard Gaillardetz of the University of Toledo says the document had been launched by the previous pope, but it had the sentiment and even the crisp writing style of Benedict.

Mr. GAILLARDETZ: This document came under his pontificate. I mean, obviously, the issue goes back to the pontificate of John Paul II. But this document was issued at least with his general approval and, therefore, I think it's fair to say that he sees this as an important way to respond to the problem of clerical sexual abuse.

HAGERTY: Gaillardetz thinks the Vatican is wrong to connect the sexual abuse crisis, which came to light four years ago, with gay priests. But unlike his predecessor, John Paul, who seemed to downplay the crisis in the United States, Pope Benedict appears engaged with the issue. As evidence, Father Tom Reese looks to the appointment of William Levada, the archbishop of San Francisco, to Benedict's old job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this job, Levada will be deciding whether to expel priests accused of abuse. And Reese believes he'll have a zero tolerance policy. Moreover, Reese says, this is the highest Vatican position an American has ever held.

Fr. REESE: I think it indicates that he understands how important the American Catholic Church is and that he wanted someone with direct experience of it at the highest echelons of the Vatican.

HAGERTY: Which does not surprise Father Fessio. He says this pope has always taken an avid interest in the United States and admires its enterprise and religious vigor. Fessio has known the pope since 1972, when he studied under then-Cardinal Ratzinger. He was part of the students' circle that met with their former professor each year and would usually talk with him privately.

Fr. FESSIO: And each year, I'd make a little list, three or four of the most important, you know, events or problems that I saw in the American church. I don't remember ever mentioning something to him he didn't already know.

HAGERTY: Richard Gaillardetz says he's been surprised at the pope, who has shown more than expected openness toward new ideas. For example, at the bishops' synod that met in October, Pope Benedict did not dismiss out of hand the idea of allowing married priests in the future. He also did not immediately appoint conservative bishops who will determine the future direction of the church, though most believe Benedict will do that soon enough. All in all, Gaillardetz sums up Benedict's brief papacy this way.

Mr. GAILLARDETZ: Neither the greatest hopes of his supporters nor the greatest fears of his detractors have been realized.

HAGERTY: But, of course, the papacy of Benedict the XVI is only eight months old.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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