VATICAN CITY – When the conclave of cardinals elected 78-year-old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II, they chose the man whose intellect, faith and worldview had shaped John Paul’s long pontificate more than any other member of the hierarchy.

As prefect, or president, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years, Ratzinger helped to develop some of John Paul’s most important policy documents.

As the church’s principal theologian, he also was called on to explain the church’s positions on a wide range of topics.

Many of his most frequently quoted pronouncements have been hotly controversial and can strike the ear as harsh or rigid.

Is the new Pope Benedict XVI as uncompromising on doctrine as he could seem as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger? The answer, in a word, is yes – but his pronouncements are often more complex than they appear, and the context in which they were issued can be all-important.

His reputation as unyielding springs from his conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the living embodiment of Christ on Earth, that it was founded by Christ and is “the instrument for the salvation of all humanity.”

“This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world,” he wrote in a 1987 document, “Dominus Iesus. “But at the same time, it rules out … religious relativism which leads to the belief that “one religion is as good as another.’

“If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that, objectively speaking, they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Ratzinger’s firm assertions on Catholicism’s primacy created some awkward moments even for Pope John Paul II; at a gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi, it was he who insisted that the Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and Jewish leaders present were not “praying together” with the Pope, but rather “praying at the same time.”

While it is certain that as Pope Benedict he will continue to proclaim the unique role of Roman Catholicism in human salvation, he nevertheless used his first papal homily to announce that he wanted “an open and sincere dialogue” with other religions.

That may reassure those in the Jewish community made wary by some of Ratzinger’s past remarks. Five years ago, for example, he caused a stir by writing in his book “God and the World,” “We wait for the instant in which Israel will say yes to Christ.”

The statement “is very offensive to Jewish ears,” said the Rev. Francis Moloney, dean of theology and religious studies at Catholic University of America.

Moloney, who spent 18 years on the International Theological Commission that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, saw it as an example of “a pre-papal Ratzinger somewhat overstating things in a polemical insistence on the centrality of Jesus.”

The Rev. Anthony Figueiredo, a Rome-trained theology professor at Seton Hall University, said the statement was made to counter church theologians who were saying Jews do not need to be evangelized.

Benedict actually embedded his words in a careful context: “That the Jews are connected with God in a special way and that God does not allow that bond to fail is entirely obvious. We wait for the instant in which Israel will say yes to Christ, but we know that it has a special mission in history now … which is significant for the world.”

Benedict is far more critical of Buddhism and Hinduism because they are not monotheisms.

In a 1997 interview with the French weekly L’Express, he complained that Hinduism offers “false hope” through the “morally cruel concept of reincarnation.”

But it was another line from that same interview that caused a sensation, when English-language publications quoted him as calling Buddhism an “auto-erotic spirituality.”

In fact, he was talking not so much about Buddhism as its appeal to some Westerners. And “auto-erotic” was not a good translation.

“If Buddhism is attractive (to Westerners),” he said, “it’s only because it suggests that by belonging to it you can touch the infinite, and you can have joy without concrete religious obligations. … It’s spiritually self-indulgent eroticism.”

As cardinal, Ratzinger made no secret of his resentment of Buddhism’s growing popularity in the West. In France, for example, there are more men studying to be Buddhist monks than are studying to be Benedictines.

Benedict is so worried about Buddhism, transcendental meditation and the like, said Seton Hall’s Figueiredo, because of their belief “that “I reach nirvana without any mediation.’ That is highly dangerous because it denies the existence of original sin and of the church and ultimately of Jesus Christ.”

While his role as Pope may oblige him to couch his beliefs in more diplomatically, it seems likely the trademark image of Pope Benedict’s will not be the smiling pontiff who kisses Korans, babies and airport tarmac, but a prophetic voice – and one particularly critical of those who want Catholicism to modify its moral stance or fade from the scene.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said in his homily to the cardinals last Monday, shortly before they entered the conclave that elected him.

He is emphatically opposed to the Western culture’s growing acceptance of homosexual activity.

“We must have great respect for these people who also suffer and who want to find their own way of correct living,” he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, but said it is unacceptable to legalize homosexual marriage. “The law creates morality or a moral form, since people habitually think that what the law affirms is morally allowed.”

When the Repubblica reporter asked if governments could at least allow “for a pact of solidarity between two homosexuals to be recognized and protected by the law,” Ratzinger said no since it would “appear in public opinion like another type of marriage.”

On the matter of artificial birth control, however, he appears to be surprisingly moderate.

Asked by German author Peter Seewald, who interviewed Ratzinger at length for their popular book, “Salt of the Earth,” if artificial contraception for married couples was always wrong, Ratzinger said, “I would say those are questions that ought to be discussed with one’s spiritual director, because they can’t be projected in the abstract.”

Nevertheless, it galls Ratzinger that a traditionally Catholic nation could pass legislation allowing gay marriage, as Spain did last year, or that a Catholic presidential candidate like John Kerry could campaign for president on platform that endorsed abortion rights, and so he last year issued a short document called the “Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”

Catholics in government have “the right and the duty” to uphold church teachings on bioethics, reproductive choice, the family and other issues governed by moral law, it declared, adding, that “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

It should come as no surprise that this Pope so defiant of the forces secularizing Western culture will not be inviting Metallica to play at Sunday’s installation Mass.

Rock music is a “vehicle of anti-religion,” he opined in 1986, because it “lowers the barriers of individuality and personality” to invite the listener to “liberate himself from the burden of consciousness.”

“He’s a 78-year-old man committed to the baroque tradition,” said Moloney, the Catholic University dean. “Bavarians have a strong artistic tradition, and he reflects that. And he’s hardly the only person who thinks rock music is diabolical.”

Moloney cautioned against making too much of statements made by a prefect “who had this mission to defend the Catholic tradition. As pope, he now has a mission to live the broadness of Jesus Christ.”

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