VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II’s death a year ago — April 2, 2005 — left many Roman Catholics expecting that their church would take an even harder, more conservative line with selection of Joseph Ratzinger as the next pontiff.
But Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican’s German-born chief orthodoxy watchdog, has hardly acted like his nickname, “God’s Rottweiler.”
Instead, the faithful got a pope who rides around in headgear that resembles a Santa Claus hat and wrote his first encyclical on love.
That’s not to say that Benedict has changed his doctrinal tune. He has reaffirmed church teaching on everything from sexuality to the sanctity of life.
But in his first year as pope, Benedict has confounded left and right through a handful of small yet significant changes. He is very much his own, unpredictable man.
Take for example that first encyclical, “God is Love,” an exploration of love and charity that focused on the types of love — erotic and unconditional — that Benedict said were joined in marriage between man and woman.
“What other pope in history made his major encyclical on erotic love?” asked the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit who has known Benedict since the 1970s, when he was the German theologian’s doctoral student.
“Now we have the ‘panzer cardinal,’ the ‘dour Bavarian,’ ‘God’s Rottweiler’ defending love!” Fessio said. “What a paradox!”
Indeed, ever since his April 19 election, Benedict has been anything but boring.
He has shown a pastoral and populist side unfamiliar to many, humbly joking and placing John Paul on the fast track to possible sainthood.
He made some surprising choices in naming his first batch of cardinals, promoting an outspoken critic of China, Hong Kong bishop Joseph Zen, despite the Vatican’s new push to re-establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
And he shocked Catholics across the theological spectrum by meeting with his harshest liberal critic, Hans Kueng, as well as the excommunicated ultraconservative Bishop Bernard Fellay, who heads a Swiss-based schismatic movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
“When he was elected, the left was very worried and the right was delighted, and both of them expected him to come in like a gangbuster and start an attack cleaning up the church, coming in like the Grand Inquisitor,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who resigned last year under Vatican pressure as editor of America magazine.
“Of course he totally surprised people that way because his personality, which is quite charming, came through as a charming Bavarian rather than an authoritarian Prussian.”
Aside from his public persona, Benedict’s few yet decisive moves have also surprised observers of the church hierarchy.
In one of his few bureaucratic changes, Benedict removed the Vatican’s top expert on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, as head of the office for relations with Muslims and other religions.
Analysts like Fessio said Fitzgerald was probably removed because he was seen as being too soft on Islam, when the Vatican should be pressing Islamic countries hard to respect religious freedom.
Others, like Reese, warned of the dangers of “exiling” such a knowledgeable expert.
Benedict has reached out to Muslims, saying he wants to build “bridges of friendship.” But he also issued a strong denunciation of terrorism during a meeting with Muslim leaders in Cologne.
Benedict’s only other major move within the Vatican has also sparked questions, particularly on the right.
The appointment of Cardinal William Levada as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith provoked “widespread puzzlement” among conservatives.
Levada, some believe, hadn’t effectively preached the church’s doctrine on homosexuality during his tenure as San Francisco archbishop.
Neuhaus said Benedict now faced a “defining test” of his pontificate in how he chose to deal with the dissent that emerged from liberals to the first major document issued under his pontificate, an instruction effectively banning gays from joining the priesthood.
The Europe-based reform group “We Are Church” has criticized Benedict for what it calls Benedict’s “Eurocentric” attitude, neglecting the needs of the developing world by focusing so much on reasserting the Christian roots of Europe and the challenges the continent is facing.
“We had hoped for a change,” said Vittorio Bellavite, a spokesman for We are Church in Italy. “It’s not like we are happy to be confirmed; we want to be proved wrong.”