Ratzinger and the Church

Someone else pointed out that while, for non-Catholics, the election of a new pope means little in terms of spirituality, doctrine, etc., it nevertheless has other important implications, political, for example. So for what it's worth, here are some thoughts from a Protestant-turned-atheist on the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to head the Roman Catholic church.

Some people are already expressing hope that Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, will not be so bad and are advising people to "give him a chance". They think that he may have some kind of change of outlook from his days as the Vatican's commissar of ideological correctness. I have to wonder whether these people are a little slow, naive, or just stupid. The guy, just one day ago, declared war on modernism, post-modernism, even pre-modernism - hell, anything to do with secularism at all. People who believe in a progressive, humanist outlook and a secular state that guarantees citizens freedom of worship and conscience are said to be contributing to a "dictatorship"; but fanatics who want to force people to live by their rules, which they attribute to "god" but most of which were developed during a period when the Church was burning heretics and ignorantly insisting that the sun revolved around the earth, are, according to Ratzinger, wrongly labelled as "fundamentalists".

This is not a minor disagreement about faith in the modern world; this is a declaration of war. This is a war that is very real for Ratzinger and his cohorts and one they intend to prosecute. The Vatican, in general, and Ratzinger, specifically, have made it clear that they think it acceptable to use religion to interfere in political institutions and processes that affect many more people than just Catholics. Other commentators discuss the need to clarify a morality without "theocratic absolutism"; but Ratzinger and others who share his worldview (not just fundamentalist Catholics) aren't ignorant. They know this exists, and they reject it, with contempt. A theocratic outlook combined with means to enforce it upon people who do not share this worldview calls for more than dialogue (as important as that is), as we are seeing in the contemporary United States.

Max makes a point about focusing on Ratzinger's Nazi past. The first comment, as a rebuttal, is worth considering. Without dwelling on it too much: the Church knew this would be an issue for many people, for good reason. One can be justified for skepticism about the Church's pronouncements on reconciliation and dialogue in this respect.

Finally, we get down to how the new Benedict XVI is going to work out for the Church. Speaking as someone without a direct stake in the matter, I think he was a bad choice. The Church will shed members; those who stay will have to conform or shut up. We can expect to see the continuation of a trends that began during the reign of John Paul II. But this raises the issue of the nature of organizations. If an organization or a group changes its fundamental policies and ideologies, then after a certain point, it becomes a different organization. If the Catholic church admits women as priests, eases up on its hierarchy, and eliminates the dogma underlying these policies and others that bother "liberals", what will differentiate it from, say, Episcopalianism? From what I've seen, many reformers are asking the Church to become something it's never been. There will be limits to this, and I think that many people are going to be disappointed. Real change, though, might come when more and more people, at the bottom of the organization, start questioning more and more why such a hierarchy, which was developed in an imperial climate 2,000 years ago and in which they have no say, is necessary for their salvation in the modern world.

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