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How Ratzinger became pope.

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Benedict XVI, several readers wrote, not without a tinge of schadenfreude, to remind me that in May 2002 I wrote a column predicting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not be elected pope. Others pointed out that in my "Top 20" list posted on NCR's Web site, Ratzinger's name did not appear.

So, let me acknowledge publicly that I did not predict this.

In my defense, however, I would note that in the revised 2004 edition of my book Conclave, I listed Ratzinger among the candidates to watch. Moreover, in an April 14 piece for the NCR Web site, four days before the opening of the conclave, I wrote the following: "The push for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's doctrinal czar for 24 years and the dean of the College of Cardinals, is for real. There is a strong basis of support for Ratzinger in the college, and his performance in the period following the death of the pope, especially his eloquent homily at the funeral Mass, seems to have further cemented that support."

Hence I was not quite as off-key as some of my earlier writings might suggest. Nevertheless, it remains true that my judgment was colored by some of the old bits of conventional wisdom about papal elections: that he who goes in a pope, comes out a cardinal (now false in three of the last six elections); that the 76 percent of the cardinals who are residential would not elect a curial candidate; that a man too closely identified with the policies of the previous pontificate would not be elected; that 78 was too old. All of that, it turns out, was hogwash.

Having spoken with a number of cardinals after the election, it seems clear to me that most of my colleagues and I simply overanalyzed this election. We thought in terms of geographical blocks, political interests and public relations concerns. The cardinals, it seems, just asked themselves who among them was the best man for the job and voted accordingly. The fact that it didn't take them long suggests it did not strike them as an exceptionally difficult judgment to make.

As I've said many times about Ratzinger, whatever you make of his theological positions, there's no question the man has everything you'd want in a pope: intellect, experience, integrity, deep spirituality, a gift for languages and a sense of the universal church. Moreover, the list of such men in the College of Cardinals was not especially long.

I suppose the major reason I entertained doubts about Ratzinger as a papabile is what might be called the "baggage" factor. Fairly or unfairly, in some Catholic circles Ratzinger is a lightning rod, a beloved hero among conservatives and something of a Darth Vader figure for Catholic progressives. I wondered if the cardinals would want to elect as pope someone who brought with them that kind of profile.

Every journalist covering the Vatican reflects the limitations of his or her own nationality and cultural experience, and I now see how much of an American I was. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, Ratzinger has no such profile, except in restricted theological circles. It's really only in pockets of Western Europe and North America that the broader Catholic public had any sense of the man prior to his election, explaining why some of the initial. reservations about Ratzinger's candidacy came from American and German cardinals. In the end, they too seemed persuaded that the man the world would know as Benedict XVI would not match the public profile sometimes associated with Ratzinger, whom I once dubbed "the Vatican's enforcer."

On this score, it may be that the cardinals had better instincts than I did. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of American Catholics conducted shortly after the white smoke came up from the Sistine Chapel found that 31 percent had a favorable reaction to the new pope, 9 percent unfavorable, and almost 60 percent said they didn't have enough information to reach a conclusion. In other words, more than 90 percent of American Catholics already like the pope, or at least are willing to give him a chance. That's considerably less baggage than I might have guessed.

Still, 9 percent of America's 65 million Catholics amounts to roughly 5.8 million people, which is a large pocket of opposition right out of the gate. Those numbers have been mirrored in polls across Western Europe. Obviously, Pope Benedict is aware that some Catholics have trepidations about where his papacy will go, and he has been at pains in the early days to calm anxieties. In an April 20 talk, he spoke about dialogue, ecumenism, interreligious outreach, the need for the church to witness to authentic social development and his desire to transmit joy and hope to the world.

Make no mistake: The pontificate of Benedict XVI will be dramatic, and it will not always be comfortable for Catholics with views that might conventionally be described as "liberal" on matters of sexual morality, theological dissent or authority in the church. At the same time, Pope Benedict is known as a man of deep intelligence and profound love for the church, and to date there's no evidence that he intends to launch a new antimodernist purge.

My own sense is that Benedict is a pope who may surprise all of us. Whichever way the pontificate goes, it will be fascinating to watch.

[John k. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. For his complete Word from Rome, go to His e-mail address is]
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Title Annotation:WORD FROM ROME
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 6, 2005
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