Benedict XVI may be a new pope, but American Catholics have been fighting over him for decades. Championed by traditionalists, decried by...

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WASHINGTON — Benedict XVI may be a new pope, but American Catholics have been fighting over him for decades. Championed by traditionalists, decried by modernizers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has played an intimate role, even from far-off Rome, in some of the fiercest disputes inside U.S. parishes, seminaries, Catholic universities, even barrooms.

As chief of the Vatican office that monitors orthodoxy, he stood up for the old ways. People who were reluctant to criticize the grandfatherly Pope John Paul II have long found it easier to make a menacing figure of a German cardinal with a name full of bristling consonants.

So the question yesterday among many American Catholics was: Can a divider become a uniter?

“He’s the hero of one faction but not of the other one,” said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America who specializes in tracking attitudes of American Catholics. As “the most-known entity on the whole list” of possible popes, Benedict XVI is likely to be “a polarizing figure, and the American church already has a problem with polarization,” Hoge said.

Hoge’s own polls have documented some of those divisions. Although American Catholics widely agree on such issues as the severity of the sex-abuse scandal and the need for more lay participation in church decision-making, they disagree on whether the church needs more innovation or more orthodoxy.

For example, the number of Catholics who told Hoge’s researchers that the church needs more progressive sexual attitudes was statistically equal to the number who said there are too many gay men in the priesthood.

Issues facing
new pope

Some key issues facing Pope Benedict XVI

Vatican finances: The Holy See has run deficits for three years, because of dollar’s slide, clergy-sex scandal’s effect on donations and Pope John Paul II’s expensive diplomatic network.

Secularism: The number of Catholics seeking to become priests and nuns has dropped sharply in Europe and North America.

Moral teachings: Despite church’s stand against homosexuality, abortion and birth control, many Catholics, especially in wealthy nations, go their own way on these moral issues.

Sex-abuse scandal: Anger over sexual abuses by priests haunts church in several nations, particularly U.S., which is Vatican’s biggest single source of donations and revenue.

Women’s role: Advocates for women continue pushing for greater, and more equal, role in church, arguing priest shortage will eventually force Vatican to accept female clergy.

Religious competition: Evangelical Protestant churches are gaining adherents in Latin America, and Muslim preachers are making inroads in Africa at same time Catholicism is.

Social justice: New pope must speak as credible moral voice to church members and world on such problems as war and peace, human rights and economic justice.

The Associated Press

Just days ago, some commentators were speculating that the next pope might be so focused on the developing world that he would find such controversies among the relatively rich, educated and free-thinking American Catholics mystifying.

But no. Since the early 1980s, few controversies have cropped up in the U.S. church without Ratzinger in the fray. Usually he spoke in his official role as top man in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

From that post, he admonished Seattle’s then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen for excessive liberalism in 1985, cracked down on the unorthodox teachings of the Rev. Charles Curran on birth control in 1986, and repeatedly condemned homosexual behavior as “an intrinsic evil” that could not be tolerated in Catholic ministries to gays and lesbians.

Last summer, Ratzinger entered an argument among U.S. bishops about whether Catholic politicians — such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., then running for president — should be denied Holy Communion because of their support for abortion rights.

“Consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” was a “grave sin” that must disqualify a Catholic from receiving the sacrament, Ratzinger wrote, and so is voting for such a politician out of support for abortion rights.

So the election of Benedict XVI provoked strong reactions. Such as this:

“My heart went down to my feet. I was so despondent,” said Sister Jeannine Gramick of Hyattsville, Md., who in 1999 was ordered by Ratzinger’s Vatican bureau to stop ministering to gays. “It couldn’t have been worse in terms of my own ministry and outreach to gays and lesbians” and to the U.S. church in general, especially its shortage of priests, she said.

And this:

“I’m tickled pink,” said Mark Shea, a founder of the popular Web site and proprietor of the lively Web log “Catholic and Loving It!” He added: “I think Pope Benedict is a first-rate theologian. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. … He’s a far more nuanced thinker and pastor than the media characterizations of him have been capable of imagining. It’s like they say in Hollywood: You’re neither as good nor as bad as they say you are.”

Missing from the responses was the “huh?” factor, that flummoxed half-shrug that says, “Never heard of him.” Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was scarcely known outside the Polish neighborhoods of Detroit and Chicago when he became John Paul II in 1978. Angelo Roncalli was just a face from the Vatican diplomatic corps, an elderly patriarch of Venice, when the white smoke went up in 1958 and he emerged as John XXIII.

Everybody seemed to know Ratzinger.

In Wichita, Kan., at a noontime Mass at St. Anthony’s Church, 25 parishioners spoke of the man in Rome as they might chat about their own bishop. Restaurant owner Randy Simon, for example, likes what he knows about Ratzinger as a Vatican insider and Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal strongman.

“It’s not a club where you change the rules as you go along,” said Simon, 55. “It’s a faith, and you abide by the rules of the faith.”

Nearby was Pat Hommertzheim, 71, who feels just as strongly that the Vatican is making a mistake by choosing a traditionalist. In a church facing a shortage of priests — one in six U.S. parishes has no priest — “we need to let the priests marry, and then we would have more,” she said. Priests with wives and children, she added, would be better able to understand the real lives of the faithful “and what it costs to take care of the children.”

Of course, this was all just Day One of the papacy of Benedict XVI, and being pope is an entirely new job to go with the new name. Shea said it is typical of Americans to think of church controversies in terms of U.S. politics, to divide the players into right wing and left wing when figures such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI oppose all political systems that try to reduce individual humans to social machinery.

The Rev. Joseph Galante, bishop of Camden, N.J., agreed.

“I think what must always be kept in mind is that different jobs have … different responsibilities,” Galante said. As the keeper of orthodoxy, Ratzinger focused on doctrine. “Now the role has expanded.

“So let’s wait and see,” the bishop counseled. “I won’t judge Benedict XVI by the role that Cardinal Ratzinger had to play.”