But since he became Pope Benedict on 20 April, the personal warmth of the German theologian has taken many people by surprise -- as has his focus on Islam and his attempt to bridge the 1,000-year gap between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the East.
Robert Moynihan is editor-in-chief of “Inside the Vatican,” a monthly magazine focused on the Holy See. He says Cardinal Ratzinger’s image was once “distant, icy, and Germanic.” Now, he says, Pope Benedict comes across as a sort of compassionate grandfather figure, such as when he addressed worshippers at the Vatican shortly after attacks killed 56 people on 7 July in London.
“We pray for the people killed, for those injured and for their loved ones," Moynihan says. "But we even pray for the attackers: Lord, touch their hearts. To those who foment feelings of hate and carry out such revolting terrorist acts, I say: God loves life, which he created, not death. And I say, stop, in the name of God.”
Publicly praying for terrorists is not exactly in vogue these days. But Moynihan says it is certainly in keeping with Benedict’s chief concern, Christianity, in which forgiveness and compassion figure prominently.
“We are dealing with tormented individuals [the terrorists] and with a tormented social and political world right now. He wants healing. And he wants healing personally and socially and geopolitically," Moynihan says. "He was quite opposed to the Iraq war. I spoke with him personally in February of 2003, and the war, as you recall, began in March 2003. And I said, ‘How about the Iraq war?’ And he said, ‘It would not be just. It’s not a just war.’”
Benedict, meanwhile, has quietly begun waging what he sees as his own “just war.” In a Vatican address two days before his election as pope, Ratzinger declared war on “moral relativism” -- that is, the widespread view in the West that there is no absolute truth, that morality is subjective.
Moynihan says the pope seeks to restore what he sees as Europe’s lost Christian tradition. He says Benedict is expected to address that issue in his first major writing -- called an encyclical -- likely to be published by yearend.
“He’ll talk [in the encyclical] about the church and its sacramental life, in the sense of bringing the transcendent down and incarnating through the sacraments in daily human life, in things like baptism and the Eucharist," Moynihan says. "And he’ll use that as a springboard to talk about the necessity of human beings having that transcendent dimension in their cultural and political life, and if they don’t have it, he will argue that they’re missing something so profound that they lose their way -- they lose their identity.”
But Benedict’s war won’t simply be a philosophical battle. John Allen is the author of an acclaimed biography of Ratzinger as well as a new book, “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”
“We have already seen some political translations of that idea [the war on moral relativism]," Allen tells RFE/RL from Rome. "The pope, for example, very enthusiastically backed the Italian bishops in their campaign to defeat an Italian referendum on in vitro fertilization. The church actually won that battle. He also very wholeheartedly backed the Spanish bishops in their attempt to block a gay marriage law in Spain, which of course the church lost. And I think what this indicates is that this is not just a philosophical exercise for Pope Benedict XVI, but it’s also a very practical political issue. I think it means this is going to be a very engaged pontificate, above all in what we in the West call the ‘cultural issues.’”
In waging his war on relativism, Benedict appears to be looking to the Orthodox churches as an ally. His predecessor, John Paul II, made great efforts to reunite the main branches of Christianity, which split in 1054. But few expected Benedict to follow him so strongly, as Allen points out.
“This is a man who in his 24 years as head of the doctrinal office in the Vatican was always very concerned about reinforcing Catholic identity and Catholic distinctiveness, and therefore was never seen as a particularly ecumenical figure," Allen says. "And yet, he has made it abundantly clear that he sees this as a top priority of his pontificate and, above all, he wants to improve relations with the Orthodox Church, trying to heal this millennium-old split.”
Ironically, the pope also has another ally in his battle against secularism: Islam. But Allen says that for Benedict, as a cardinal who has expressed opposition to Muslim Turkey joining the European Union, relations with Islam are a balancing act.
“You know the old political adage, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ And in that sense, I think Ratzinger perceives a friend in Islam in the struggle against secularism," Allen says. "On the other hand, he also does not want Europe to become an outpost of Islamic culture. So he’s going to try to walk this fine line between the sort of philosophical and theological common cause with Islam, while at the same time try to some extent to hold Islam at arm’s length in his own backyard, which is Europe.”
Benedict will take his message to Europe at large in August, when he makes his first papal trip outside Italy. Hundreds of thousands of faithful are expected to greet him in Cologne, Germany for World Youth Day commemorations on 16-21 August.
That yearly event was always a major fixture on the schedule of the media-savvy John Paul. This year, it looks set to be the first major test of Benedict’s appeal to Europeans to return to their Christian roots.