R. Scott Appleby is a professor of American religious history and director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The author of numerous books and articles on Catholic modernism, Appleby is general editor of the Cornell University Press series, Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth Century America.
On Apr. 20, in a conversation with BusinessWeek Special Correspondent Ann Therese Palmer, Appleby offered his perspective on Pope Benedict XVI, his role as guardian of orthodoxy under John Paul II, and his relationship with the U.S. Church. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: For some liberal American Catholics, why do you think this is their worst nightmare come true?
A: Pope Benedict XVI has a reputation, built over many years, for cracking down on what he would call theological dissent -- but what they would call healthy theological pluralism within Catholicism.
Q: Do you think he has the capacity to change now that he isn't the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine?
A: In his former capacity, Ratzinger was required to draw sharp lines around Catholic orthodoxy and underscore the traditional teaching of the Church.
However, I'm less inclined to believe he will relax this vigilance as Pope because he brought profound theological convictions to the job of "enforcer of orthodoxy." He wasn't merely a watchdog. He was a leading theologian who helped define the meaning of Catholic teaching.
He was a theologian with well-defined critiques of secularism and unhealthy laxity of behavior on moral precepts. The U.S. is case No. 1 in his book with respect to "lax behavior" or disobedience to Church teaching on matters like birth control.
Q: Is the Vatican hierarchy and election of a Pope outdated for the modern democratic world? In the last 300 years, there has been increased emphasis on personal freedom exercised in a participatory democracy instead of historical obedience to one Pope or one king.
A: Cardinal Ratzinger has indicated that certain forms of democracy can promote relativism, an attitude that effectively denies the certainty of absolute truth. As the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he has warned repeatedly that relativism can be a byproduct of democracy.
The new Pope will likely be critical of certain aspects of American Catholic practice, as was Pope John Paul II, who demanded obedience to certain teachings and didn't get it.
Q: You have said the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger could lead to a "winnowing" of the American church. Why do you think that?
A: The controversy over denying Communion to politicians who are pro-choice or who are divorced and remarried outside the Church is an example of possible winnowing ahead.
If it's true Pope Benedict XVI prefers a leaner, smaller, purer church as he has spoken of before, we could see a withering of certain Catholic institutions because they're not considered fully Catholic. This might include Catholic colleges, hospitals, and other Catholic institutions.
In his role as Prefect, he determined who could and could not speak as a Catholic theologian. As Pope, that power could be extended more broadly.
Q: Where does this leave liberal American Catholics?
A: It leaves them both concerned and hopeful. The concern is that the man who has become Pope not continue to play the narrower role he was required to enact in his previous office.
The hope is that his intellect and his ability to adapt to the new office will lead to a papacy that's in true dialogue with the Church -- the believers -- as well as the world.
Q: Why would the Cardinals chose a man like this, given all of the apparent problems the Church faces?
A: There are three possible reasons. First, they wanted to send a clear signal that there won't be any fundamental changes in the doctrine and moral teaching of the Church. Those who expect some liberalization or adaptation to the modern world should abandon those expectations.
Second, it demonstrates continuity with the papacy of John Paul II, whom Cardinal Ratzinger served long and loyally.
[The third possibility is] they elected Cardinal Ratzinger to demonstrate strength in the areas where John Paul II was weak: Primarily in the internal administration of the Church and in managing the Curia and appointment of bishops. These are areas where Ratzinger will bring great expertise and achievement.