A Pontiff's First Year
Benedict has foiled the expectations of liberals and conservatives alike
Now a full year into Pope Benedict XVI's papacy, it may be time to retire the canine metaphor--or at least to say that it was the year that God's Rottweiler didn't bite. In his quietly purposeful way, the scholarly, soft-spoken pontiff has managed to foil most expectations. Liberals who feared a reign of intolerance have been pleasantly surprised by the gentle pastoral style of a leader whose first encyclical explored the meaning of God's love. Conservatives who expected the German-born pope to crack the whip, drive out dissidents, and restore the Latin mass (and do all of it yesterday) have been equally surprised. And perhaps a little disappointed.
This, after all, was the man who had made his name as John Paul II's strict top cop for church doctrine, the would-be corrector of all that went wobbly after Vatican II. And in the run-up to the conclave that selected him as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger shored up his reputation with a bracing attack on the "dictatorship of relativism." No wonder conservatives thought he was precisely the man to build on John Paul II's achievements by directing the church toward a more rigorous doctrinal clarity.
But then came some early surprises. Benedict's meeting with one of his oldest intellectual foes, the liberal theologian Hans Kung, seemed almost too conciliatory to some. Puzzling, too, was the appointment of Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco--a pragmatist without particularly strong theological credentials--to Benedict's old post in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On other fronts, some conservatives wondered why Benedict didn't move faster to fix the liturgy or trim the bloated, occasionally wayward Vatican bureaucracy. But by far the most urgent concern, at least among American Roman Catholics, was whether Benedict would put real teeth into the church's proclamation against the ordination of men of "homosexual orientation."
Off the leash. "He's certainly been a much more cautious and moderate figure than people had anticipated," says John Allen, the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter. Other seasoned observers, however, caution against a rush to judgment. "The Rottweiler tag was always unfair," writes Damian Thompson, editor of the Catholic Herald, "but I think the German shepherd is about to let himself off the leash."
Methodical may be the word for the man who took until December to move all of his belongings--including some 20,000 books--into the papal apartments. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and one of America's leading voices of Catholic orthodoxy, reads even more into the pope's deliberate style: "He's made it clear that he views this papacy as a long-term pontificate," says Neuhaus.
Many expected Benedict's reign to be a short, unremarkable coda to the 26-year reign of his charismatic predecessor. But Benedict is already cutting a distinctive path. "He is John Paul's successor and he's faithful to his theology," says Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, "but he's not afraid to be his own man." John Paul, a man of the theater, thrived on public appearances and the bold gesture, qualities instrumental to his role as a world leader who drew huge crowds and helped bring down the Iron Curtain. The more reserved Benedict, winning in his own diffident way, has an almost Protestant attraction to simplicity and understatement. "This is a guy who believes that people can be swayed by unadorned argument," says Allen. "It is very much an intellectual's way of doing business."