On April 19 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected in the conclave of 2005 to be the 265th pope. He promptly chose for his name Benedict XVI. He later explained that he picked the name Benedict to link his pontificate to that of Benedict XV, who guided the church during the First World War. Like that Benedict, the new pope would seek to be an advocate for world peace and reconciliation. The contrast with the previous conclave of 1978 was striking. On that occasion, the cardinals chose a Polish archbishop about whom little was known in the wider world. Twenty-six years later, the cardinals in conclave chose the most widely known and clearly identified personality among their number, the German cardinal who as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been the principal protagonist in a series of highly publicized theological controversies over the past two decades. In the early days of his pontificate, however, through deliberately chosen words and gestures, Benedict XVI seemed to suggest that, like his predecessor, he might surprise the world, this time by transcending the stereotypes held by both his critics and his advocates.
In electing Benedict XVI, the cardinals clearly chose continuity. By virtue of his office, Cardinal Ratzinger had been for more than two decades the closest theological advisor to John Paul II. Widely recognized as one of the finest theological minds of his generation, Joseph Ratzinger at the age of 35 had been chosen by the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joseph Frings, to be a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In that role, the young Father Ratzinger enabled the elderly Cardinal Frings to be a voice for reform in the church, calling for transformation of the Vatican bureaucracy to reflect better the authentic tradition of the church.
In 1966 Joseph Ratzinger joined another voice for reform at the council, Hans Küng, on the Catholic faculty of theology of the University of Tübingen. But in 1968, that year of rage, Father Ratzinger was repulsed by the anarchy of student demonstrations at the university and later left Tübingen for the University of Regensburg. In 1977 Pope Paul VI made him archbishop of Munich and Freising and then a cardinal. Four years later Pope John Paul II summoned him to Rome to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In this new role Cardinal Ratzinger would take decisive action in doctrinal disputes in which the congregation judged that certain theological initiatives, undertaken in the name of reform, had in fact compromised authentic Catholic teaching. Prominent academics were told that they could no longer teach as Catholic theologians. Documents issued by the congregation and statements by Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to diminish the significance of regional bishops’ conferences, an apparent reversal of Cardinal Ratzinger’s earlier support of greater collegiality in the church, an important theme of the council. Similarly, the congregation’s insistence on the primacy of Christian faith appeared to inhibit the interreligious dialogue encouraged by the council.
Yet Benedict XVI, in his first statements after his election, was quick to affirm the importance of collegiality in the church and took pains to express his gratitude and respect to the representatives of other religions who attended his installation. In reaching out to Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, Benedict gave every indication that he intends to follow the path of his predecessor in seeking continuing dialogue with other religious traditions.
The cardinals, in choosing Benedict, also expected that the first German pope in modern times would respond to the challenge of Western Europe and its thoroughly secularized society, even as John Paul II, the first Polish pope, had helped turn back Marxist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. But if the church is to offer a compelling alternative to the dictatorship of relativism that Cardinal Ratzinger indicted in his address to the cardinals before the conclave, then the church must find ways to engage those generations of Europeans who have come of age in this post-Christian culture. Citizens of the new Europe will not respond to religious leaders who, like contemporary politicians, rely on focus groups to determine their message. But neither will they be reached by the call of evangelization from a church that seeks to withdraw from a confused and often corrupt culture in order to maintain the inner purity of a sacred remnant.
In Benedict XVI, Catholics have a supreme pastor of extraordinary intellectual gifts and decades of experience at the nerve centers of the continuing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He has expressed his own confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in both church and world. Men and women of faith, both within and outside the Catholic Church, should be prepared for future surprises of the Spirit that so often can shatter the inherited stereotypes of the past.