Amid all the speculation about what Tuesday's election of Pope Benedict XVI means for the Catholic Church, and for Christianity as a whole, this beer stein logo may best characterize his modus operandi:
"Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981."
Or this one: "Truth is not determined by a majority vote."
Spoken like true fans.
If you look closely in the coming days, you just may see a member of the former German theology professor's official fan club sporting a T-shirt with one of those logos, though it may take the "Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club" at www.ratzingerfanclub.com a few days to deplete its "Ratzinger" inventory and retool its Web address in favor of the pope's new moniker.
The Web site which features not only the steins and T-shirts but hats, mugs, stickers, magnets, sweatshirts and pins was so swamped with Internet traffic Tuesday that the only way to access it was through a cached copy.
Beyond mere commercialism, the Web site is indicative of the brave new world facing Pope Benedict XVI in the most literal sense; much of the cutting-edge technology and bioethic science that has become the foundation of human interaction and societal discourse as he assumes the papacy was little more than science fiction when his predecessor took office in 1978.
Global and instantaneous communication make the pope not only a world figure but an intensely watched and readily critiqued one as well. As his predecessor expanded forums like World Youth Day to use the media of his age to reach out to church youth and to the wider religious world, Pope Benedict XVI will likely be judged as much by his media savvy and ecumenical bridge-building as by his doctrinal treatises.
He pledged Wednesday in his first Mass as pope that he would continue the legacy of outreach to youths and to those of other faiths, and to push for the Christian unity promoted by his predecessor.
The media may be modern, but the messenger is a man known for his traditionalism, the former head of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His fans know him as a hard-liner, and they respect him for it. His online fan club wrote of his former position within the church: "As Grand Inquisitor for Mother Rome, Ratzinger kept himself busy in service to the truth: correcting theological error, silencing dissenting theologians, and stomping down heresy wherever it may rear its ugly head and, consequently, had received somewhat of a notorious reputation among the liberal media and 'enlightened' intelligentsia of pseudo-Catholic universities."
Some called Pope John Paul II "the world's conscience," and even those who disagreed with him seemed to honor the leader of the world's largest Christian denomination as a voice for good in a world where goodness sometimes seems in short supply. His words often elicited guilt from the pews and anger from theological or philosophical opponents.
Little wonder, then, that it is the new pontiff's stand on social and moral issues that both U.S. supporters and critics alike seem most focused on. Bishop George Niederauer assured local Catholics on Monday, as the cardinals were meeting in the Sistine Chapel to choose the new pope, that the process is a religious meditation rather than the result of public lobbying.
"Just a word about how some commentators in the media have described this ancient process of electing a new pope. At best they find it 'charming' and 'quaint,' with all the secrecy and the smoke coming out the chimney," he said.
"At worst, it's secretive and antiquated. But would modern really be better? Should the church establish toll-free phone numbers around the world so folks can phone in as often as they like to vote for their favorite? Or do we need an SAT-style test, with the highest scorer becoming pope?
"I think not. Maybe a hundred or so of the most experienced, tested and dedicated bishops in the church gathering in seclusion, silence and prayer is a rather good way to go. Especially for a church founded by a Savior who spent an entire night in prayer before choosing his first 12 apostles."
Even so, speculation will continue for some time about the new pontiff's agenda. Much has been made of the liberal leanings of American Catholics on social issues, but a recent poll shows them more moderate than non-Catholics on the social issues most readily highlighted as flashpoints with a conservative papacy.
An online survey earlier this month conducted by Beliefnet, Inc. questioned more than 5,300 people who identified themselves as Catholic about which direction they believe the church should take and what they want from the new pope. The issue of most concern doesn't deal with abortion, gay marriage or even celibacy. Rather, 87 percent said they want to see "increased efforts in fighting poverty."
Other issues Catholics identified: 67 percent favor more lay participation in the church; 63 percent want the ban on artificial birth control lifted and want to see those who have remarried be able to receive Communion without seeking an annulment from the church; 56 percent want priests to be able to marry; and 41 percent think the church should ordain women.
"Half of Catholic respondents said they wanted the church to become more progressive," according to Beliefnet, "while 28 percent said the church is 'fine as it is,' and the rest favored a return to more traditional Catholicism."
By contrast, among more than 6,000 non-Catholic respondents, 80 percent believed Catholic priests should be allowed to marry, and 58 percent said the church should ordain women, while 64.5 percent said the church should be more progressive.
Three-quarters of all the respondents surveyed in both groups were women.
Pope Benedict has stated his unequivocal positions on the issues of greatest concern, offering detailed arguments for celibacy, for male-only priesthood and for holding the line against secularism, among other issues.
In his book "Salt of the Earth" he identified selfishness and a crisis of faith as two of the underlying challenges individual Catholics and Christians in general must face.
"I would say that people don't want to do without religion, but they want it only to give, not to make its own demands on man," he wrote. "People want to take the mysterious element in religion but spare themselves the effort of faith. The diverse forms of this new religion, of its religiosity and its philosophy, all largely converge today under the heading 'New Age.'
"A sort of mystical union with the divine ground of the world is the goal to which various techniques are supposed to lead. So there is the idea that it is possible to experience religion in its highest form and at the same time to remain completely within the scientific picture of the world. In contrast to this, the Christian faith seems complicated."
For Americans worried that domestic politics are becoming increasingly saturated with the language of faith, Pope Benedict's election raises new questions about how Rome will play into the evangelical backlash that handed President Bush a second term in office.
While evangelicals disagree with him on basic issues including the new pope's insistence that "the church of Christ . . . continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church" and that Protestant churches "suffer from defects," they found a friend in Pope John Paul II's fearless lead in shoring up traditional Christian morality on social issues. Most observers believe they along with top LDS leaders are counting on Pope Benedict to further that agenda.
The spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lauded the new pope's selection in a prepared statement, but factions within the American church have already been vocal about what they want to see from the new pontiff.
"The next pope must encourage open discussion of ending mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests," said FutureChurch Executive Director Sister Christine Schenk, in a statement this week. "We also need to talk about opening the diaconate to women as a next step toward full inclusion in all the ministries of the church," she said.
"Opening the female diaconate could provide a huge new pool of ministers to meet the sacramental needs of an expanding church," the statement said.
Citing the shortage of priests, Sister Schenk said while the number of Catholics has grown more than 50 percent in the past 28 years from 710 million in 1975 to 1.1 billion in 2003 the number of priests has remained the same at roughly 405,000.
While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to debate Pope Benedict's future influence, he has already garnered a "wait and see" response from many non-Catholics, and a warm acceptance from others.
"I cannot agree with the new pope on every point . . . but I still respect and admire him," wrote Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities. "People think that the church can give them peace and freedom by releasing them from obligations of marriage, family and education; by throwing away as old-fashioned any reverence for the holiest moments of living and dying.
E-mail: [email protected]