To see him striding across the piazza in front of St. Peter’s, one might mistake Joseph Ratzinger for just another white-haired priest in a hurry.
In fact, during the past 24 years, the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI carved out a reputation for slowing down the breakneck pace of change in favor of meditative reflection.
The new pope has an extensive track record from his two decades as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office in charge of enforcing church teaching. Brilliant, bubbly and bristling at the same time, Cardinal Ratzinger was capable of spontaneous wit, charm and courtesy. He often stopped to talk with tourists in Rome, and could converse on almost any cultural topic with ease. At the same time, he was capable of dealing ruthlessly with those who crossed the doctrinal line.
Benedict XVI’s papacy is likely to be more of the same.
When I interviewed him in 1993, Ratzinger and his boss (and predecessor), Pope John Paul II, had just published a new Catholic Church catechism, essentially a textbook of what Catholics must believe. Liberals were upset that it seemed to leave so little leeway for individual interpretation of matters of dogma. Ratzinger was unapologetic: “The Catechism,” he said, “was not conceived as a means of control, but as an aid in perceiving what the Catholic Church believes. It is not the work of a spiritual police force … but the result of cooperation among believers worldwide who want to publicly bear witness to their faith.”
Note the finesse of that answer: not a police force, just a cooperative effort to get the facts straight. The key to Ratzinger’s worldview was his profound disillusionment with what he considered the moral and theological anarchy of the 1960s. As a young priest in Germany, Ratzinger was a self-described progressive, who had great hope for the changes that the Second Vatican Council had brought to the Catholic Church. But when that period of liberalization led to widespread challenges of basic church teaching — for instance, the celibacy of priests, firm condemnation of artificial contraception and homosexuality — Ratzinger turned into precisely one of his new titles as pope: Defender of the faith.
His justification for enforcing the church’s magisterium — its right to teach — is simple: “I can be obedient,” he said, “because it is my fundamental conviction that my intelligence is limited and the church is wiser.”
Benedict XVI will expect similar humility of his flock of 1.1 billion. The weeks and months to come will probably not be comfortable for those who had hoped that with John Paul’s death, the Catholic Church would steer a course of modernization and reform. The 265th man to sit on the Throne of Peter believes in the power of the word of God. Observant Catholics will not have to wait long to learn in what direction the new servant of the servants of God will move the Church, and whether he does so in a hurry, or at the slower pace he seems to favor.
John Moody serves as the Senior Vice President, News Editorial for FOX News. He is responsible for both the design and editorial direction of FOX News Channel and oversees all story content for FOX News. Mr. Moody is also the author of "Pope John Paul II: Biography".