Prague, 20 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking in Latin in the Sistine Chapel today, the new pontiff said he felt inspired and guided by his predecessor, John Paul II.
“I seem to feel his strong hand holding mine tightly," Benedict said. "I seem to feel his eyes smiling and hear his words speaking to me at this moment, saying, ‘Don't be afraid.’”
That Ratzinger should recall John Paul II is no surprise. Indeed, his election is widely seen as a reflection of the desire of many cardinals to maintain continuity with the late Polish pontiff’s strict rule.
John L. Allen is Vatican correspondent for the “National Catholic Reporter,” a liberal U.S. weekly, and the author of a biography of Ratzinger, “The Vatican Enforcer."
He told RFE/RL that the conclave's cardinals wanted a leader to build upon John Paul II’s conservative doctrinal vision.
“I think there are some cardinals who for some time have been concerned that John Paul II was never terribly attentive to the inner nuts and bolts of ecclesiastical administration, that his charisma was very much directed to the outside world," Allen said. "Ratzinger will be a man who will make sure that those nuts and bolts are aligned with the general vision of John Paul II and also his own.”
Ratzinger’s election pleased the church’s conservative wing but dismayed liberal and reformist voices among the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
Cardinal Ratzinger raised eyebrows recently when he said Muslim Turkey should not be allowed to join the Christian European Union.
A strict defender of Catholic orthodoxy for 23 years, Ratzinger silenced liberal and other reformist voices. The Italian press nicknamed him “the panzer cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler.”
Ratzinger allowed no debate on opening the priesthood to married men or women, welcoming homosexuals into the church, or loosening its opposition to contraception and birth control.
He also raised eyebrows recently when he said Muslim Turkey should not be allowed to join the Christian European Union.
But today, Benedict XVI said he is committed to dialogue with other churches. And he suggested he will not forget the concerns of Third World Catholics, many of whom want a pope chiefly devoted to helping the poor.
Allen said it is too early to say where Ratzinger will take the church.
“Now obviously, the cardinals are aware that the new pope does bring a degree of baggage to the job," Allen said. "But I think you saw in the message at the conclusion of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel today his first attempt to reassure the anxieties of some sectors of opinion in the church, indicating that he wants to be a pope of dialogue, he does not intend to backtrack on social justice, and so on. So I think it will be interesting in the next several days and weeks to see how the former Cardinal Ratzinger -- the Vatican’s enforcer of the faith, so to speak -- makes the transition to be being Pope Benedict XVI, who is the leader of not just a faction in the church, but of the entire church.”
Yet it’s unlikely Ratzinger will stray from what has always been his focus -- a strict interpretation of Catholic teaching and its defense in an increasingly secular world.
Before the conclave started on 18 April, Ratzinger exhorted his fellow cardinals to fight what he called “the dictatorship of relativism.” He was referring to Western moral and religious relativism, for which an absolute truth presumably does not exist.
Historian Robert Moynihan said Ratzinger has made it his mission to fight relativism in the church, which partly stemmed from sweeping internal reforms that the Vatican itself made in the early 1960s.
Moynihan, who edits the conservative monthly magazine “Inside the Vatican,” said that Ratzinger’s opposition to relativism meshed with the concerns of Pope John Paul II.
“[John Paul] felt that the human person is most happy and most fulfilled not by physical, material productions but by the word of God and by love and by spiritual giving and receiving -- that is, by intangibles, by transcendent things," Moynihan said. "And he said [that] what’s happened is that we’ve become an entirely material culture; we have de facto materialism in the West which matches the type of atheist materialism which ruled ideologically in the [former communist] East.”
Reports suggest there’s a growing sense among Vatican conservatives that by watering down its teachings to accommodate secular culture, the Roman Catholic Church has actually lost more faithful than it has gained.
Ratzinger’s position on Islam may also reflect apparently growing concern the church has also given up too much in reaching out to the Muslim world -- while not receiving enough in return.
Allen said the new pope believes that by its defending doctrinal purity, the church can reassert its influence over Western culture.
“I suspect that on a personal level, he will want to have gracious and positive relations with Muslims, as he will with all other religions," Allen said. "On the other hand, it is also true that Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has long been concerned with Christian Europe losing its soul. And I suspect that the attempt to reawaken that Christian soul of Europe will be one of the hallmarks of his papacy. And I think the very choice of his name, Benedict -- named after Saint Benedict, the founder of European monasticism and one of the formers of Christian Europe -- is an echo of that.”
At 78, Benedict’s pontificate is unlikely to be long. But Allen warned that he’s no transitional figure, either.
“I am quite sure [his papacy] is going to be strong and decisive and consequential," Allen said. "He is not simply keeping the seat warm.”