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April 20, 2005

Habemus Papum

Roy Meachum

Riding the ultra-conservative wave he created, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became the first German named pope in almost exactly 1,000 years. His election was hardly a surprise. Irish bookies had made him the odds-on favorite to swap the red zucchetto for white.

In the wake of the beloved John Paul II's death, we learned that during his reign rules for the conclave to select his successor had been changed, to rule out the back and forth that might yield compromise. The new pope wrote the rules.

Unyielding inflexibility has been at the core of the approach exercised by Cardinal Ratzinger in dealing with any doubt, questioning or deviation. He fulfills Pope Pius IX's dream to centralize in the Vatican all matters of the Catholic Church, from appointing bishops to the size and content of the unleavened communion wafer.

The prospect looms for increased fervor among the faithful who insist on following rules precisely, no matter their logic; even when they're not needed. Those who invoke their free will have been cast in the dark.

The new pope has consistently insisted everything must be exactly the same in every Catholic Church in the world, which his supporters see as fidelity to the throne of St. Peter. All who don't agree, for whatever reason, are warned to keep their mouths shut.

At least Cardinal Ratzinger ordered no one burned for apostasy during the decades he ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

He merely changed and shattered lives, including the Rev. Charles Curran, the moral theologian selected for punishment by the Curia to send a warning Americans must not take seriously the reforms offered by Vatican II. It was a warning that went awry when the students and faculty of Catholic University shut down classes, in the successful struggle to save Charlie's job in the theology department. That was in 1967.

Nineteen years later the quiet, gentle and self-effacing priest departed for Southern Methodist University where he currently holds an endowed chair in religion. The modern form of the medieval inquisition saw that Charlie was fired, in 1986, thanks to the implacable conformity insisted upon by the former Archbishop of Munich, who learned all about totalitarian rule during his youth in Germany.

Our chief hope rests in Benedict XVI following the example of the last pope to use the name and moderate some of the rock-hard rules Cardinal Ratzinger put in place. If Irish bookies rated those chances, the odds would be off the board.

As I said in yesterday's piece:

My poor church!

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