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RELIGION: We Have a Pope, and a Potential Rift

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Apr 19 2005 (IPS) - The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope Tuesday has dismayed progressive groups within the Catholic Church. They had hoped a new pope would bring a change from the conservative traditions of John Paul II.

But the selection of Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man and enforcer of strict orthodoxy through the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that he headed, points to more of the same – if not even more strict orthodoxy.

This could open up more differences within the Church, many Catholic groups say.

"This will definitely widen the rift within the Church," Frances Kissling, from the group Catholics for a Free Choice, told IPS. "Very conservative people will be happy that this marks a continuation of the papacy of John Paul II. The rest will be unhappy because this will mean a continuation of that papacy."

Rea Howarth from the Quixote Centre, a U.S.-based Catholic group, said the appointment of Ratzinger as pope is "terribly disappointing." The need was for a pope from the developing world, "and we are very concerned that the Church will maintain its focus on orthodoxy and not address the horrific challenges facing developing countries," she told IPS.

Ratzinger does not comprehend cultural differences within the Church, she said. "It is not a good thing for the poor, it is not a good thing for women, and it is not a good thing for priests."

People who ask hard questions "are going to be told to shut up," she said. "In fact they are already being told to shut up."

A statement from the Quixote Centre later said that with the election of Ratzinger, ”the cardinals have set their compass directly toward widening the chasm between the hierarchy, the laity, and the best and the brightest of the church’s theologians. They are sailing the ship right over the chasm."

Catholics for a Free Choice said in a statement that it is "deeply concerned that the election of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as pope is a strong indication of continued internal dissension within the Church. The cardinal’s historic role as a disciplinarian means the tradition of the punitive father is maintained within the Roman Catholic Church."

Pope Benedict XVI, the group said, has both an opportunity and a mandate to set a tone for the future of his papacy and to redress wrongs done in the name of the Vatican. "Simultaneously, he must span the divide widened during the last papacy between clergy and laity, men and women, north and south, right and left, gay and straight."

As Pope John Paul II exemplified the spirit of reconciliation and relationship when he sat face to face with the man who shot him, "the new pope should extend the same courtesies, coupled with a genuine spirit of invitation, to those who have been most hurt by church policies over the last years," it said.

Catholics for a Free Choice has laid out a schedule for what the new pope could do in the next 100 days.

The new pontiff should immediately meet with survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy, it said. He must also form a commission to study the current church policy on condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS. The group has asked for the pope to establish a pontifical academy on women’s rights in the Church, and to open a dialogue on opening priesthood to married men.

Few expect the new pope to take such steps, and that could set progressive Catholic groups on a new path of confrontation with the Church establishment.

As recently as 2001, Ratzinger issued a notification asking Spanish theologian Marciano Vidal to retract his thesis on contraception, abortion and homosexuality which departed from the official Vatican position.

The day before he was elected pope, Ratzinger spoke out against what he called modernity. The differences between the Vatican and progressive Catholic groups look set to widen more than ever before.

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