When New York’s Al Smith, the first Catholic Presidential candidate in the nation’s history, lost the 1928 election, comedians said that Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: “Unpack.”
With the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th Bishop of Rome, one New York priest joked that he’d sent a similar message to an American colleague at the Vatican: “Avoid the rush and check into Regina Coeli now.”
Regina Coeli is the oldest and most notorious prison in Rome, the Eternal City’s answer to the Tombs. And while even a Jesuit wouldn’t seriously suggest that Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, will be putting dissidents into jail cells, there’s no question that the new Papacy will further crack down on those who stray from or even question church orthodoxy.
That is bound to have a profound effect on the Catholic Church in the United States, where, in the last two weeks alone, verboten issues like women’s ordination, married clergy, divorce and birth control have been argued heatedly on cable television and talk radio. While even a Pope with Cardinal Ratzinger’s forceful personality can’t control who says what on CNN or MSNBC (his influence over Fox News remains to be seen), he certainly can control dialogue within church circles.
“I think this is a catastrophe for the church in the United States,” said novelist Peter Quinn, who is active in his church in Hastings, N.Y., and writes frequently on Catholic topics. “He is so focused on orthodoxy that he can’t see the bigger picture. The changes brought about in the Second Vatican Council, which showed how the church could adapt to the modern world, are not part of this Pope’s agenda.
“[Historian] Lord Macaulay once said that the American Constitution was all sail and no anchor. Now the Catholic Church is all anchor and no sail.”
During the bulk of John Paul II’s reign, Cardinal Ratzinger served as the Vatican’s answer to Dick Cheney. Devoid of charisma, at least in public, and with a reputation as a ferocious enforcer of dogma, Cardinal Ratzinger was neither warm nor fuzzy, befitting his place in the Vatican bureaucracy. Since 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger had been the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office formerly known as the Inquisition.
The new Pope certainly has his supporters-in fact, there’s a Cardinal Ratzinger fan club on the Web, where adherents gather to cheer on his enthusiastic upholding of Catholic doctrine. And one of New York’s most prominent Catholic priests, the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, seemed well pleased with the choice as he co-anchored Vatican coverage for the EWTN cable network. The network is often referred to as “the Catholic channel,” although its point of view-that the liberalizing effects of the Second Vatican Council have caused the Church untold ruin-is hardly universal.
But it certainly would seem to square with the new Pope’s sentiments, as well as those of the dozens of bishops appointed during the closing years of John Paul II’s Papacy. Generally, they have been dogmatic conservatives with a dim view of lay opinion. In fact, the archbishop of Newark, John J. Myers, has suggested that he would lose little sleep if the American Catholic Church shrank in numbers, as long as that shrinkage produced a purer, more orthodox Church. Archbishop Myers took the unusual step last year of banning a lay organization called Voice of the Faithful, even though it didn’t actually exist within his jurisdiction.
“When Pope Paul IV was elected in 1555, Ignatius Loyola [founder of the Jesuits] said he shook to his very bones,” Mr. Quinn said, referring to a Pope who would go on to further empower the Inquisition and dole out patronage to his allies. “Well, there’s a lot of shaking going on right now among liberal and moderate Catholics-not from fear, but from anguish. John Paul II was a Catholic reactionary with a human face, but now the human face is gone.”
Mr. Quinn’s sentiments, whispered even by some priests, may be unduly pessimistic-or so hopes Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal, the Catholic journal of opinion based on the Upper West Side.
“It’s hard to predict what sort of Pope he will be based on his position at the C.D.F.,” Mr. Baumann said. “There, he was essentially the church’s head theologian, and that was an intellectually and in some ways lawyerly job. Now, as Pope, he is in a pastoral position, which calls for a different set of skills and different energies.”
One thing seems certain, according to some church observers: Don’t expect Benedict XVI to be as quick as his predecessor to visit New York.
John Paul II visited here in 1979, about a year after his election. His immediate predecessor, John Paul I, didn’t get the chance to visit, dying after a mere month in office. Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, traveled to New York in 1965 to celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium and deliver a passionate anti-war speech at the United Nations. Paul’s New York visit was a milestone in Papal history: It was the first time a Pope had visited the United States.
But it was John Paul who captivated the city during two memorable visits.
“New Yorkers warmed enormously to John Paul II, but my impression is that the new Pope doesn’t have the charisma, the outsized personality, of a John Paul II,” said Mr. Baumann. “That will make it harder for New Yorkers to figure him out. Benedict will travel, of course, but he doesn’t strike me as the showman John Paul was. Benedict spent most of his time in one academic setting or the other.”
And the academy may prove to be the setting for one of the new Pope’s first battles, some church observers said. Critics, including the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law, have questioned the Catholic identity of institutions such as Boston College, a Jesuit school, and other colleges and universities. Early on in his pontificate, John Paul cracked down on American theologians like the Reverend Charles Curran, whose teachings strayed from the Vatican line on sexual ethics. Numerous Catholic college presidents and academics feared for the Catholic tradition of inquiry when John Paul called on local bishops to approve the hiring of theology professors. And just last year, Seton Hall University’s law school came under fire when students presented Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, sister of Donald Trump, with the school’s Sandra Day O’Connor Award. Both Justice O’Connor and Judge Barry had issued opinions in favor of abortion rights. Archbishop Myers said he found the students’ action to be “profoundly offensive,” and he questioned the school’s commitment to its “Catholic identity.”
As John Paul’s enforcer on these issues, Benedict XVI figures to further clamp down on U.S. Catholics who believe that the imperial Papacy has betrayed the promise of collegiality and inquiry offered by the Second Vatican Council.
They wonder if they’ll ever again see the extraordinary spectacle that unfolded on cable television in the days after John Paul II’s death, when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, a self-appointed expert in Catholic doctrine, was on the receiving end of lectures by a nun, Sister Joan Chittister, and a priest, the Reverend James Martin, an associate editor of America magazine.
Mr. Buchanan argued that changes such as the ordination of women were impossible because Catholic doctrine never changed. The nun and the priest countered by pointing out how often church doctrine did, in fact, change.
Few of those changes, however, took place when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican’s chief of doctrine. And fewer still can be expected during the reign of Benedict XVI.
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