New Pope Surprises American Catholics

One year ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and was introduced to the world as the next Pope. He took the name Pope Benedict XVI. The former German cardinal has reshaped the papacy, and its relationship with American Catholics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host

This next story begins at the Vatican, at the Sistine Chapel. That's where white smoke from a chimney signaled the start of a new era in the Roman Catholic Church one year ago today. Outside, in St. Peter's Square, tens of thousands waited for news of the successor to Pope John Paul II.

Unidentified Man: Hebemus Papem.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

INSKEEP: The new Pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As Pope Benedict XVI, he has challenged and surprised many Catholics here in the United States.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

When he was chosen Pope, Joseph Ratzinger was hardly an unknown quantity. As head of the Vatican's office on doctrine, he was the person called on to uphold church policy and discipline dissidence. As Pope, many expect Ratzinger to be stern taskmaster, one who would take tough positions and leave little room for dissenting opinions.

But in that regard and in other ways for American Catholics Pope Benedict has been a surprise. Tom Gorbach(ph) who attends Church of the Nativity, in suburban Kansas City, says Benedict showed his intellect in his first encyclical, entitled God is Love. But Gorbach says he saw another side of the new Pope when he was in Rome earlier this year and attended a papal mass.

Mr. GORBACH: He stopped as he was exiting and he reached out to a couple of children that were leaning over the guardrails, and embraced them, gave them a hug, and blessed them. And people were commenting, because they thought he was a little more distant from the young people, and that proved them wrong. So, it was a real pleasant surprise.

ALLEN: It's not just his personality that has come as a surprise, but also his policies. Conservative theologians were shocked just months after Benedict's election when he held a friendly, four-hour dinner meeting with one of the churches leading dissident voices, Swiss Theologian Hans Kung; someone whom Pope John Paul II long refused to meet.

This is not to say that liberals within the American church feel that in Pope Benedict they have an ally. An action begun before he became Pope, Benedict forced the resignation of Father Thomas Reese, a well-known liberal theologian, from his editor position at the prominent Jesuit Magazine, America.

Nonetheless, its conservatives in this country who've raised the most questions so far about Benedict's papal actions. Many have been disappointed with a document on homosexuality and the priesthood. In November, when it was first released, it seemed a strong statement of hard-line principles. Father Reese, now with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, says both the left and the right thought it would mean there was no place for homosexuals in the priesthood.

Father THOMAS REESE (Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University): But then there was this big middle, which included most of the American bishops and seminary administrators, who said, no, there's still room under this document for good, celibate, homosexual seminarians and priests who do not make a homosexual lifestyle the be-all and end-all of their lives.

ALLEN: Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, has also taken issue with some of Pope Benedict's personnel decisions, including his choice of former San Francisco Archbishop, William Laveda, to head the office on church doctrine. That's the highest Vatican post every filled by an American. But Neuhaus considers Laveda under-qualified.

Despite these and other questions, Neuhaus says he considers silly the emerging view that as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has abandoned tough positions on doctrine and church policy. Neuhaus praises, for example, Pope Benedict's decision to remove Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as the church's top liaison with Muslims and other religious groups.

Neuhaus says under Benedict, the Catholic Church is likely to take a more hard-line approach.

Father RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS (Editor, First Things magazine): Islam has to deal very seriously with the question of religious freedom, and civil and political rights. And in this respect, is it a substantive difference from John Paul on the question of Islam? No. But it's certainly a different tone.

ALLEN: In upcoming months, Benedict will have an opportunity to strengthen ties with his flock through visits to Poland, Spain, and Germany. There's also talk about trips next year to the United States and Brazil.

Perhaps the best sign that he's connecting with Catholics can be seen in the tens of thousands of people attending his weekly audiences. More, in some cases, than the numbers that came to see John Paul II.

Under Pope Benedict, the audiences aren't just appearances, but also teaching moments. As one church watcher says, people came to see John Paul, and they come to hear Benedict.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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