Pope Benedict XVI: Ominous Rumblings From Rome?

The elevation of German Cardinal Josef Ratzinger to the papacy is bound to disappoint American Catholics hoping for a more moderate tone in the church.

Ratzinger for many years oversaw the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post responsible for upholding orthodoxy. In that role, Ratzinger worked to stifle dissent in the church, cracking down on progressive clergy and reasserting long-standing, if widely ignored, hierarchical views on issues like birth control and human sexuality.

The prelate has expressed dismay over the secular nature of European society, complaining to an Italian newspaper last year, "In political life, it seems almost indecent to speak of God, almost as if it were an attack on the freedom of the non-believer."

Ratzinger also believes the church should play an active role in politics and world affairs. During the 2004 U.S. election, he was instrumental in executing the church's coordinated attack on Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry. Although Kerry is Catholic, his pro-choice views on abortion infuriated the church's ultra-orthodox wing, and some U.S. bishops indirectly attacked Kerry by warning congregants not to vote for candidates who support legal abortion.

In 2003, Ratzinger set the stage for those assaults by signing a document that was sent to bishops worldwide basically demanding that Catholic office-holders vote in favor of church positions in certain areas.

The 19-page "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" asserted that Catholics in government have "the right and the duty" to uphold church teachings on bioethics, reproductive choice, the family and other issues governed by moral law.

"A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals," the document said.

Among the subjects it listed as non-negotiable under the church's view of moral law were those involving bioethics, abortion, euthanasia, experiments on human embryos, Catholic education, religious freedom, economic development and justice.

Moderate and liberal U.S. Catholics were disappointed that the document contained no references to the death penalty or war.

At the time the document was issued, Religion News Service reported, "The document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as prefect of the congregation is the Vatican's highest authority on faith and morals, said that the Catholic Church respects the separation of church and state but that moral and ethical values remain transcendent."

In a sermon Monday, before he was named Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger issued a hard-line call to orthodoxy, going so far as to praise fundamentalism.

"To have a clear faith according to the church's creed is today often labeled fundamentalism," he said, "while relativism, letting ourselves be carried away by any wind of doctrine, appears as the only appropriate attitude for the today's times. A dictatorship of relativism is established that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."

Ratzinger went on to criticize "numerous ideological currents" that he said have buffeted the church. These include, he said, "Marxism to liberalism, up to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and on and on."

Other critics have opposed Ratzinger's rigidly anti-gay rhetoric. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a statement asserting, "[D]uring the reign of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was the driving force behind a long string of pronouncements using the term 'evil' to describe gay people, homosexuality, and marriage equality."

What does all of this mean for America? There are at least 50 million U.S. Catholics, and polls show that many of them disagree with many of the rigid stands of the hierarchy. Most U.S. Catholics, for example, oppose the church's ban on artificial forms of birth control; many are pro-choice on abortion.

But the church hierarchy is increasingly powerful on the political stage and reflects conservative views on social issues. Although the church has historically taken more liberal positions on economic and social-justice issues, U.S. bishops these days seem obsessed with the former, barely giving lip service to the latter. Some bishops even threaten to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. They never make the same threat against Catholic office-holders who oppose an increase in the minimum wage or who vote against helping the poor.

The U.S. hierarchy's focus on social issues, coupled with Ratzinger's history and public comments, indicate that the bishops will likely continue their partnership with fundamentalist Protestant groups in efforts to criminalize abortion, block access to certain forms of birth control, deny civil rights to gays and extend government aid to religious schools and institutions.

Ultra-orthodox Catholics, who long for the days of church supremacy over public life, are undoubtedly celebrating Ratzinger's ascension. More progressive Catholics may take a different view. Speculating on the possibility of Ratzinger's elevation earlier this week, the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said he doubted Ratzinger would get the nod.

"He's too much of a polarizing figure," McBrien told The Washington Post. "If he were elected, thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the church."