Imagine, if you can bear it, Tom DeLay as the president of the United States. With its election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, the College of Cardinals has committed an act roughly analogous to that (except for the funny money, of course).
Cardinal Ratzinger earned his way into the heart of Pope John Paul II by acting as the latter's enforcer, flexer of the magisterial muscle, the guy who launched a cunning campaign against all those "Kumbaya"-singing nuns, priests, prelates, and theologians who dared to take issue with the most draconian of the Church's doctrines: those that condemned women to a life of biological destiny; queer people to a stigmatized life of chastity; and divorced people to a status of unworthiness when it came to the central rite of the Catholic Mass, the partaking of Holy Communion.
It is difficult to imagine just what the cardinals hope to achieve with the election of Ratzinger. Unlike John Paul II, he bears no sign of warmth, no compassion to accompany the conservatism -- no, authoritarianism -- that characterizes Catholic doctrine as currently interpreted. How then, is he to close the deal with the developing world on selling the Church as its salvation?
Africa, where Catholic communities are in a state of growth, is often seen as the Church's salvation. But it's hard to imagine members of the African Church jumping for joy at the election of Ratzinger. Sure, African cultures tend to be conservative in matters of gender, and many tend toward misogyny in matters of sex. But what happens when African worshippers are made to leave the rest of their culture at the Church door, as the new pope will no doubt have them do? Might Islam -- the Church's big competition in Africa -- look more appealing in contrast?
In Latin America, the Church finds itself challenged by ecstatic forms of Protestantism, largely Pentecostal in nature. Twenty years ago, the Catholic Church's moral authority stemmed largely from the communitarian doctrine of liberation theology advocated by left-leaning activists, which called for economic justice for the world's poor, and created worship communities of lay people in areas starved for priests. As prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger put an end to all that in 1984, officially silencing Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, a proponent of liberation theology (regarded as a form of communism by the Church's right-wingers), and sending a chill through the rest of the Catholic academy.
It is often assumed that the Church's internal strife, especially on matters pertaining to sex, affects only those of us who are Catholic. But the Vatican has a seat, as an observer nation, at the United Nations' table and has used that perch in the past to scuttle progressive language in international agreements, often in alliance with repressive theocracies, on the rights of women. And while enforcement of such agreements, such as the final documents of the Population Summit in Rio or the World Conference on the Rights of Women, is left up to the signatories, globally institutionalized sexism relieves pressure on governments loath to provide reproductive health care to the poor, or fundamental equality in courts of law.
More than that, the language of the Vatican has been effectively appropriated by the right-wing movement here in the United States; witness George W. Bush's frequent iterations on "the culture of life". Well, just wait until Tom DeLay gets ahold of Ratzinger's pronouncements on homosexuality, the condemnation of which he has made his special mission. (Hint: Listen for the words "intrinsically evil.")
In the 1980s, when I was covering the Catholic dissent movement for Ms. magazine and The Nation, Ratzinger was on a tear, especially in the United States, rapping the knuckles of any prelates, theologians, nuns, or priests who dared to respectfully question Church teaching on human sexuality, which they did by invoking Catholic teaching on the right of conscience. In Catholicism, teachings clearly at odds with one's prayerfully discerned conscience can be legitimately questioned on that basis.
Among Ratzinger's most notorious acts was the public humiliation of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, whose diocese authority on doctrinal matters the Vatican temporarily took from him, placing it in the hands of a caretaker appointed by the prefect. Among Hunthausen's many sins (allowing divorced Catholics to take Communion, allowing lay people too much participation in religious rites, allowing women at the altar), Ratzinger displayed special concern for the bishop's tolerance of "homosexuals," especially the members of Dignity, a Catholic group that Hunthausen allowed to meet and worship on church property.
Ratzinger's investigation of Hunthausen began in 1983, and ended with a 13-hour interrogation of the archbishop in 1985 and a letter from Ratzinger that failed to restore Hunthausen's authority while issuing a special warning on this special problem:
The Archdiocese should withdraw all support from any group, which does not unequivocally accept the teaching of the Magisterium concerning the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity … . A compassionate ministry to homosexual persons must be developed that has as its clear goal the promotion of a chaste lifestyle. Particular care is to be exercised by any who represent the Archdiocese, to explain clearly the position of the Church on this question.
In 1992, Ratzinger also sent a letter to U.S. bishops that sanctioned legal discrimination against gays. To prohibit gays from teaching, coaching, or adopting was OK, he wrote, also noting his support for a ban on gays in the military.
Along the way, Ratzinger also threatened 24 U.S. nuns with expulsion from their orders if they refused to recant a signed statement that abortion may sometimes be a moral choice; had Father Charles Curran removed as a theologian on the faculty of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (Curran questioned Church teaching on birth control, divorce, and homosexuality); and silenced or censured a handful of Catholic theologians around the world, including Hans Kung of Switzerland and Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands, as well as the Jesuit leader Pedro Arrupe. (A thinker formally sanctioned as a Catholic theologian submits to the authority of the Vatican, which may revoke that title or issue lesser disciplinary measures such as the revocation of rights to speak, write, or teach as a Catholic theologian. This is sometimes a temporary penalty, as in the case of liberation theologian Leonardo Boff of Brazil, who was officially silenced for a year.) As a cub reporter and dissenting Catholic, I got to witness the terrible agony of women religious, as nuns are formally called, choosing between their homes and families -- which is what a convent is to a middle-aged nun -- and their beliefs. Several who recanted lost the support of allies who were laywomen.
Today, as a woman, as a non-heterosexual, and as a person who questions authority, I'm bracing myself, for with the anointment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, the authority of the Church of Rome -- and the voices of those who co-opt its rhetoric -- will be ever more finely focused on me and my ilk. But this election is about more than feminists or gays or divorced Catholics or married priests. At a time of such spiritual hunger in the world, we could use a beneficent symbol of divine love. And so could the Church, which cries for the reconciliation of its people. How else can it survive?
Adele M. Stan has written on religion for Ms., Mother Jones, and The New Republic, and is the author of the blog AddieStan.