Pope Benedict XVI, the first elected in the 21st century, takes over leadership of a church that is both deeply troubled and richly blessed. Thanks to the long and rigorous ministry of Pope John Paul II, it is a church that enjoys a stature and visibility in the wider world unprecedented in modern times. It is also a church whose scandals and divisions : deep and destructive : are now known in a way that would have been impossible before the global transformation age.
It is a church in which membership is growing wildly in some places and dropping precipitously in others, a church in which the dependable infrastructure of a previous era : nuns and priests in abundance : is collapsing, in which the education level and dedication of laity has never been higher and in which their confusion and distress has never been greater. It is a church that, facing deep questions, too often says, "There are no questions!"
How Benedict XVI deals with these and a host of other challenges currently facing the church could make a huge difference in the life of ordinary Catholics and may determine whether significant numbers of Catholics remain in the community or find a spiritual home elsewhere. Unlike other popes, Benedict XVI was not an unknown entity when he ascended the papal throne. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was the chief watchdog of doctrine during the last papacy, an enforcer of what he determined to be orthodoxy. He was an aggressive and severe head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is reasonable to wonder if even his own writings as a young priest (when he was an "expert" at Vatican II, 1962-1965) would survive that office's scrutiny today.
The landscape of the contemporary church is littered with the ruined careers and the smeared names of dozens of theologians, thinkers and ministers : some of them among the best theological minds of their time : who fell into disfavor with Ratzinger. They were silenced, prohibited from teaching in Catholic colleges as Catholic theologians or pushed so far to the margins that they left the community. Life was perilous too for those who worked in the area of human sexuality, for those who advocated a more inclusive place for women in the church, for those questioning the church's teaching on celibacy or homosexuality.
It is no mystery why some of the more innovative and creative Catholic theology today is occurring outside Catholic institutions, in secular universities where faculty members don't have to fear the long arm of the Curia. Academics are understandably worried that the Vatican under Benedict XVI will become even more closed off than it has been to dialogue with other disciplines, with individuals' experiences and with the body of knowledge that continually accumulates regarding the human person.
Some would argue that Ratzinger's attacks on theologians were difficult but necessary actions to bring order to a church that was spinning out of control at the hands of Vatican II excesses. Catholics must recognize however that during John Paul II's lengthy papacy there was evidence aplenty that even within the ranks of Cardinals significant differences exist about how the church should approach the modern world and the host of challenges and problems it faces.
Often on television broadcasts we were told by some conservative cleric or other that it almost didn't matter who was chosen pope because the church cannot change its thinking on doctrine and scripture. That notion is incorrect and dangerous. It suggests that the Catholic community is a collection of robots and that somehow questions about doctrine or new insights into scripture are dangerous to the faith. If that were the case we might all be stuck somewhere back in time believing that women are imperfectly formed men, that the sun revolves around the earth, that it is seriously sinful to take interest for money loaned and that scripture supports the keeping of slaves.
The record may be unsettling, but we look to the future with hope, trusting that Benedict XVI will moderate a view he expressed earlier, that accepting a smaller church, a "creative minority," would be preferable to a church in which every jot of doctrine is not perfectly received. Certainly his first words as pope were encouraging. In his first Mass as pope, he expressed a strong resolve to seek unity among Christians, committed himself to the teachings of Vatican II and the pursuit of social justice, and called for collaboration between bishops and pope. The fundamental question to be answered is whether Benedict XVI will work to be the pope of all the people or only of that fringe that has applauded the severity of his previous actions.
Some have suggested that the job will change the man, that his work as a watchdog of doctrine will not necessarily define his work as pope. This remains to be seen. Thanks largely to John Paul II, the modern papacy, secrecy notwithstanding, is under scrutiny as never before. The world is watching.