For most of the last 24 years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would walk to work in the mornings from his apartment, just beyond the Vatican walls, across the vast expanse of black cobblestones in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Sometimes reporters would stop him to ask about the latest controversy in the Roman Catholic Church, and he would listen courteously, then answer evenly. More often, however, Ratzinger was a solitary figure, inward-looking and absorbed in thought.
"He's really a very shy person," says his friend and neighbor Paul Badde, Vatican correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt. "Often I would be sitting at my computer, and through the window I could see him walking outside. He looked a very lonely person, without any bodyguards, dressed in black. He'd cross the street and look in the window of a bookshop at new titles, because he's really a very passionate reader, and a passionate writer." Last week, after Ratzinger was elected to succeed John Paul II as heir to the throne of Saint Peter, when the ceremonies were over and the vast crowd that welcomed him as the newly named Benedict XVI had cleared away, he went back to his old apartment for a last time "to check his books," says Badde. "His library is his little empire, and he wanted to move it all himself."
Today the 78-year-old pontiff presides over the much vaster empire of the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church--over its dogma and doctrine, charisma and communications, rituals and real estate, seminarians and aspiring saints. The way he leads it will have an impact on issues central to the future of humanity, from the challenge of radical Islam to the scourge of AIDS, the shape of the European Union and, not least, the ferociously divisive politics of red and blue.
America is a crucial front in Benedict's expected war against secularism. The angry debates in American culture over broad questions like birth control, condoms, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, as well as narrower church issues like priestly celibacy and who gets to take communion, would rage no matter who was pope. But Ratzinger's judgments, handed down in his role as the enforcer of doctrinal purity for John Paul II since 1981, are controversial in a different way. They would seem to divide the world into Catholic true believers and those who embrace some elements of the faith, but reject or ignore other tenets--and a majority of American Catholics might fall into that latter category.
A Gallup poll last week showed that "on difficult moral questions" 74 percent would follow their own conscience over church teaching, while only some 20 percent would abide strictly by the teaching. Yet a powerful group of the very orthodox--and Ratzinger has been among them--have indicated that they might prefer the church to close its doors to the everyday Catholics who adhere to some doctrine but not all, who are comfortable with partial observance or are loyal to the faith by birth, perhaps, but not by practice.
In a series of interviews published as a 1996 book entitled "Salt of the Earth," Ratzinger said: "We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, perhaps very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world." Indeed, he added, "Christianity might diminish into a barely discernible presence."
Less-traditional American Catholics see such thinking leading toward what they call "purity tests" to draw a bright line between "real" Catholics and the group known as cafeteria Catholics. Could a stricter church under Benedict limit access to the sacraments, particularly communion, to the doctrinally conservative? This debate became overtly political last year over the issue of whether Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who is pro-choice, should be allowed to receive communion. In a delicate opinion, Ratzinger said only the individual believer examining his conscience could know whether he could receive the eucharist. For Americans in the Age of Benedict XVI there are likely to be many moments in which individuals find themselves reconciling their conscience with church teaching.
Benedict XVI, this soft-spoken, white-haired Bavarian theology professor, may well be shy and retiring, but the intellectual in the white cassock is convinced that the power of the church lies in the strength of its ideas, not necessarily in its numbers: what he calls "the firmly believed truth" of its central tenets about the revelation of Jesus Christ. The extent to which he conveys that message convincingly will shape the history of this century.
In the eyes of many Americans, the new pope faces an immediate task: he needs to offer the outside world a more-moderate image than the one he has projected in his years as a cardinal. Benedict is not a natural showman, but he understands the power of the media and the importance it plays in a post-John Paul church. Trained as an actor, John Paul was able to command global attention with his dynamic energy and, later, with the life-affirming power of his suffering as he grew old; in his quarter-century reign, he turned the papacy into a global production. Though Benedict is given to more-solitary pursuits, the early signs (meeting the press, and the fact that cardinals spent much of the week after his election telling reporters about how warm and gentle he is) suggest the new pope knows that the demands of the office are more complicated than they were in 1978. "He is a 'traditionalist,' 'European,' 'Catholic,' 'intellectual'--and you have to give weight to all of those," says Father Robert Sullivan, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Yet those who see Benedict as a Vatican neocon, Sullivan suggests, are likely to be proved wrong. How well Benedict manages the press down the years may loom large in how Americans ultimately come to view him. His aim may well be to emulate John Paul, whose paternal public persona endeared him to many U.S. believers who disagreed with papal doctrine but still loved the pope himself.
A papacy that will unfold before the eyes of the world began, as all papacies do, in secret. As 115 cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel last week to begin their deliberations about who should succeed John Paul, many had misgivings about Ratzinger. They resisted what they saw as his narrow view of faith and his overly centralized vision for the church. Yet Ratzinger was already emerging as a central pastoral figure. He seemed to be everywhere during the days after John Paul II died. He delivered the homily at the funeral, evoking emotional memories of the late pontiff before a crowd of millions gathered in Rome. Then he opened the conclave that would choose the new pope and laid out spiritual guidelines for his mitered peers.
Through a full week of public silence before the conclave began, the cardinals had been consulting, organizing and praying. At the opening of the conclave, in what sounded almost like a campaign speech, Ratzinger warned against the shifting winds of doctrine and currents of ideology that tossed Christians "from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism." On the first ballot Ratzinger got about 40 votes and the retired Archbishop of Milan, the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, got about the same, NEWSWEEK has learned. Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, another Jesuit, and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Vicar of Rome, each got a little more than a dozen votes, with other potential candidates garnering a few here and there.
On Tuesday morning, Ruini's votes went to Ratzinger, and the momentum started building fast. The third ballot was close, and on the fourth ballot, Ratzinger was pope. "When the majority was reached, 77 or 78 votes, there was a gasp all round, and everyone clapped," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. "[Ratzinger] had his head down. I think he must have said a prayer, but I didn't see his face. He couldn't have been [un]aware that this could be quite likely to happen, but that moment, when it comes, is a very special one."
White--or whitish--smoke poured out of the stovepipe atop the chapel as the ballots were burned, but the crowd gathering in front of St. Peter's wasn't sure of the signal. Then the basilica's bells began to toll. Suddenly from every side street people started running into the square for a glimpse of the new pontiff. Some onlookers found it hard to disguise their disappointment when Ratzinger--now Benedict XVI--appeared on the balcony. But his friend Badde was "amazed" by the change in the man himself. "I had never, ever in my life seen him like this, looking so victorious."
He will need all the confidence he can muster. After more than a quarter century in which Pope John Paul II helped liberate Eastern Europe and expand the horizons of the church in Africa and Asia, the church has a new mission: shoring up the faith in Europe, the United States and Latin America. Last year Ratzinger wrote that "secularism is beginning to transform itself into an ideology that imposes itself through politics and that doesn't concede a public space to the Catholic or Christian vision, which risks becoming purely private."
American catholic intellectuals like George Weigel argue that the same trends may be felt in the churchgoing United States. " 'Their' Europe problem is, from an American point of view, 'our' problem too," he wrote in his recent book "The Cube and the Cathedral." In France, a poll released at the end of last year shows only 7.7 percent of the French say they regularly attend mass, 15.2 percent go occasionally and 41 percent say they are nonpracticing. Indeed, 27 percent of the French say they have no religion at all. By comparison, the United States is devout. Yet a recent survey by a Georgetown University research center shows that the number of American Catholics who say they attended mass in the previous seven days has dropped from 67 percent in 1965 to 45 percent. The decline affects a range of issues, from church finances to the critical recruitment of priests, and those issues are now Benedict's to address. "Just like Karol Wojtyla was called out of the East," said Cardinal Adam Joseph Maid of Detroit, "this man has been called out of the West to preach a message and to live a life and make a difference in his time that God gives him."
Even the new pope's name speaks to that goal. Benedict XV tried to serve as a peacemaker during World War I, when Europe tore itself apart. In the 1700s, Benedict XIV confronted the skepticism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. And in the sixth century, Saint Benedict founded the monasteries that helped to preserve the light of European Christian civilization. If indeed the new Benedict looked victorious, it was because he had been training all his life for this particular mission: the re-evangelization of the West. Ratzinger was brought up in Ger--many with a sense that the church was under siege. He was born into the devout heartland of Bavarian Catholicism, among rolling pastures and secluded villages. "Faith is part of the landscape," says Father Sebastian Heindl, parish priest at St. Oswald in Traunstein, Ratzinger's hometown. "Bavarians see God's creation in the beauty of their countryside." Everywhere chapels dot the hilltops and small shrines to a village saint or the Virgin line the country roads.
In Ratzinger's earliest days, however, the shadow of Adolf Hitler fell across this world of faith. Ratzinger was only 6 when the Nazis came to power. His father, a rural policeman in his 50s and a devout Catholic, believed Hitler would take the country to war, and spoke of him as the anti-Christ. In a memoir, Ratzinger remembers young Nazis' scoffing at the church with its talk of sins and redemption, calling the faith a collection of foreign beliefs imposed by Jews and Romans. They preferred to stage rituals in the forests along more pagan, Aryan lines.
During the war, Ratzinger's firsthand experiences with the German military were a boy's grim chronicles of helplessness and defeat. He had entered seminary at the age of 12, but was compelled to join the local Hitler Youth in 1941, when he was 14. At 17, he was building earthworks and tank traps alongside Jewish forced laborers near the Austro-Hungarian border. As the U.S. Army approached his hometown in the closing weeks of the war, Ratzinger went into the infantry--and deserted. The Americans told him to put his uniform back on, and interned him in an open-air POW camp for a month and a half.
Ratzinger's great desire was to be a professor of theology, and only slowly did he find his vocation as a priest. "I was shy and unpractical, had no talent for sports or organization or administration," he wrote. "I had to ask myself if I would ever be able to connect with people." Finally, he was ordained in 1951, entering a world of Catholic faith that was already disappointing him. Ratzinger had expected a Christian revival after the moral and physical misery of Nazism and war, says Siegfried Wiedenhofer, a young Austrian theology student who later became Ratzinger's assistant. Instead, he saw a church that was paralyzed, calcified, a Vatican with "too tight reins and too many laws."
In 1959, when he started putting forth these ideas as a lecturer at Bonn University, Ratzinger emerged as a local star lecturing in overfilled halls. "He fascinated all of us with his wonderful, angelic voice, his clear language, his deep intellect and powerful faith," says Max Seckler, now a theology professor. Chosen as an adviser to the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger was still energized by that experience when he went to lecture at Tubingen University in 1967 and 1968. But the radicalism he found there frightened and embittered him. Student hecklers disrupted his classes. A student assembly denounced the Gospel as "mass deception" aimed at preserving the capitalist status quo, and called the Cross of Jesus "an expression of the sadomasochistic glorification of pain." In these student protests, Ratzinger heard echoes of the Nazi diatribes of 30 years before.
Ratzinger's loathing for political ideologies that distorted or diluted his cherished Catholic faith were central to his thinking as he rose to be a cardinal and Archbishop of Munich in 1977. In 1981 John Paul II named him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position that formerly went by the title Grand Inquisitor. In Ratzinger's time, of course, torture wasn't part of the agenda. But in the realm of ideas, Ratzinger was ruthless. After Vatican II, a current of thinking called "liberation theology" gained ground among Latin American priests and bishops. The church would not only identify with the poor, it would help to organize them into a political force for what amounted to revolutionary change. In practice, an alliance developed between some radical priests and Marxist guerrillas. With Ratzinger's help, John Paul II cracked down on the movement.
If Cardinal Ratzinger was given to crackdowns, does it follow that Benedict XVI will be, too? Not necessarily: Ratzinger's role under John Paul was one thing; now that he is pope, he will perhaps assume a more pastorly posture. Still, for less-traditional American Catholics, Benedict is likely to be a confounding, even vexing figure. He will not shift the church's stance on abortion. Homosexual marriages will not be sanctified. (Benedict has already condemned a new Spanish law that would allow for gay adoptions as well as gay marriages.) Women will not be ordained any time soon.
Yet American believers are looking for signs that Benedict may be more flexible on other matters. Already, his rhetoric about other faiths has been softer since his election. Ratzinger's insistence, as inquisitor, that Jesus Christ and his church were superior to all other systems of belief struck many as overly strident. In his first homily as Benedict XVI, however, the new pontiff pointedly reached out to people of other religions--or no religion--to "assure them that the Church wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialogue with them."
Will his deeds match the spirit of his words? Americans will be watching closely, and may find Benedict a more complex figure than they at first thought. One telling example: many American Catholics remain aghast at the Vatican's apparent inaction during the sex scandals of 2002, but Ratzinger, in fact, took a hard line toward the American church, pushing U.S. bishops to keep Rome informed when such matters come to light. (At the same time, he reprimanded the media for their interest in the story.) Few observers think he will take a tolerant attitude toward future offenders.
For the majority of Catholics who are in the middle of the theological spectrum, the prevailing attitude is that the faithful should be faithful--and thus simply wait to see where God will lead the new shepherd, for few Catholics, even when they disagree with the pope, want to leave the church altogether. "If you take even the angriest, it is inconceivable [to them] that they could be anything other than Catholic," says Father Richard John Neuhaus, a leading conservative voice. Does Pope Benedict XVI want to drive them away? His friends think not. "I have always known him like he was a member of the family," says Monsignor Erwin Gatz. "I believe there are people he will disappoint--the hard-liners in particular. He has a very strong personality, but not a hard one, and when one is strong, one can also be tolerant." At his first papal mass, Benedict said that he was humbled by the work before him but looked to a God "who does not abandon his flock, but guides them always"--a hope that will sustain pope and people alike in the years ahead.