People applaud as they watch new Pope Benedict XVI on jumbo screen in Times Square
Mike Segar  /  Reuters
People applaud Tuesday in Times Square in New York, as they watch a live TV broadcast of the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
NBC News and news services
updated 4/19/2005 9:02:43 PM ET 2005-04-20T01:02:43

As a Roman Catholic cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI warned American voters against departing from church teaching at the ballot box, drew criticism from victims of clerical sex abuse and opposed married or women priests.

U.S. Catholics may come to admire the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for his intellect, spirituality and consistent support for the traditions of their faith — qualities he’s shown in 24 years as the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency.

But as with John Paul II, the majority of American Catholics seem certain to diverge from him on numerous policy issues.

“In America, he has many avid supporters, but many who are not so keen on the power he has wielded,” says Chester Gillis, theology chairman at Georgetown University. His elevation “is not going to be received unequivocally with great admiration by all American Catholics — no question about that.”

Anguish, joy and concern
The majority of American Catholics told pollsters in recent weeks that they favored married clergy and a greater voice for the laity in the church — and it was clear Tuesday that liberals were anguished, conservatives delighted and others wary about Ratzinger’s election.

Ric Francis  /  AP
Catholics pray Monday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, in anticipation of the naming of a new pope.
Catholics for a Free Choice, which favors liberalizing church abortion policy, predicted “continued internal dissension within the church.” The Catholic League’s leader said “orthodox Catholics have cause for great celebration.” And the president of the Knights of Peter Claver, a black lay Catholic group, said “the jury is still out.”

Said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: “He’s a polarizing figure, but what matters to us, of course, is not necessarily theology but children’s safety. I think we owe it to him and to ourselves to try to remain hopeful and open-minded.”

Mixed reactions
For American Catholics — often called “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing appealing parts of the faith — the reaction to the new pontiff was mixed.  In the words of one, this is not a step forward, but a step to the side.

In Skokie, Ill., this was the rewrite that editor Annerose Goerge wanted. Her German-language weekly newspaper tore up its front page to tout the German pope. “I was hopeful and praying that he would be elected,” she told NBC News.

Near Boston, there was cautious optimism at Voice of the Faithful, the lay activist group formed in response to the priest sex abuse crisis.

As cardinal, Pope Benedict first blamed the scandal on the media. But James Post, Voice of the Faithful's president, said the pope eventually realized its seriousness. “For those looking for open windows, I think the window opened a crack — but not very wide,” Post said Tuesday.

The news of the new pope was welcomed at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, but when flashed on the Jumbotron in Times Square, there were signs of disbelief.

Visiting the cathedral in Los Angeles, Mary Ellen Phillips of Michigan wanted a younger, more liberal pope. “I'm hoping that maybe there will be married priests, because we need them,” she said.

Vexing issues
As a longtime power broker at the Vatican, the new pontiff has been enmeshed in some of the most troublesome issues in U.S. Catholicism over recent years:

  • He was an important player in the American dispute last year over the church’s attitude toward Catholic politicians like Sen. John Kerry, who favor abortion rights. With one bishop saying he would deny Holy Communion to Kerry, Ratzinger helped guide the U.S. prelates’ discussion of the matter. The cardinal said that while bishops ultimately could decide to withhold the sacrament, they should meet with, teach and warn politicians first. Ratzinger also said that voters would be guilty of “cooperating in evil” if they backed a candidate specifically because he or she supports abortion rights or euthanasia.
  • Ratzinger’s office also was responsible for reviewing cases of priests accused of child molesting. Clohessy’s group has complained that the new pope apparently scuttled a request to investigate the Rev. Marciel Macial, founder of the Legionaries of Christ — though it was encouraged that the Vatican recently reopened the investigation.
  • Ratzinger was seen in some circles as minimizing the abuse crisis when he told Catholic News Service in 2002 that “less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type.” A 2004 survey commissioned by the U.S. bishops showed that about 4 percent of the priests who served over a half-century were accused of abuse, though it did not pin down the percentage of guilty priests.
  • Ratzinger also has been responsible for enforcing orthodoxy at Catholic seminaries and universities, some say at the expense of academic freedom. Perhaps the most celebrated U.S. example was the Rev. Charles Curran, who was forced out at Catholic University of America because his views on birth control and other matters differed from official teaching.
  • The doctrinal office’s 2000 decree “Dominus Iesus” framed the role of the Catholic Church in human salvation in an exclusive manner that vexed Protestants as well as Jews and other non-Christians. Even his fellow German cardinal, Walter Kasper, was publicly perturbed.

Another contested issue is the Catholic stance — and Ratzinger’s — against gay relationships. Sister Jeannine Gramick, who was directed by the cardinal to cease ministering to gays and lesbians, said his election is “devastating” and would prevent Catholicism from “moving into the 21st century and out of the Middle Ages.”

We're going to be surprised’
Still, not everyone predicted doom and gloom for American Catholics. Just as U.S. Supreme Court justices moderate their views once they are on the high court, some predicted Ratzinger would adapt in his role.

“The image we have of him as a theological storm trooper, particularly in the West, is not the reality,” said Brian Saint-Paul of the conservative Crisis magazine. “People are going to see Cardinal Ratzinger for the man he is: quiet, truly humble, extremely popular among those who know and work with him.”

“I think we’re in for an image reshaping.”

Salvador Miranda, a Florida International University librarian and historian of the College of Cardinals, agreed: “I believe we’re going to be surprised. It’s one thing to be the bad cop for the pope and another to be the pope himself.”

NBC News' Anne Thompson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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