It was a move so smooth and bold, accomplished with such backstage bureaucratic finesse, that it was worthy of Dick Cheney himself.
The eminence grise who had long whispered in the ear of power and who had helped oversee the selection process ended up selecting himself. In Cheneyesque fashion, he searched far and wide for a pope by looking around the room and swiftly deciding he was the best man for the job.
Just like Cheney, once the quintessentially deferential staff man with the Secret Service code name “Back Seat,” the self-effacing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has clambered over the back seat to seize the wheel (or Commonweal). Cheney played the tough cop to W.’s boyish, genial pol, just as Cardinal Ratzinger played the tough cop to John Paul’s gentle soul.
And just like the vice president, the new pope is a Jurassic archconservative who disdains the “if it feels good do it” culture and the revolutionary trends toward diversity and cultural openness since the `60s.
The two leaders are a match — absolutists who view the world in stark terms of good and evil, eager to prolong a patriarchal society that prohibits gay marriage and slices up pro-choice U.S. Democratic candidates.
The two, from rural, conservative parts of their countries, want to turn back the clock and exorcise New Age silliness. Cheney wants to dismantle the New Deal and go back to 1937. Pope Benedict XVI wants to dismantle Vatican II and prefers 1397, the muscular medieval days. As a scholar, his specialty was “patristics,” the study of the key thinkers in the first eight centuries of the church.
They are both old hands at operating in secrecy and using the levers of power for ideological advantage. They want Catholics enlisted in the conservative cause, turning confession boxes into ballot boxes with the threat that a vote for a liberal Democrat could lead to eternal damnation.
Unlike Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, the vice president and the new pope do not have large-scale charisma or sunny faces to soften their harsh “my way or the highway” policies. Their gloomy world outlooks and bullying roles earned them the nicknames Dr. No and Cardinal No. One is called Washington’s Darth Vader, the other the Vatican’s Darth Vader.
W.’s Doberman and John Paul’s “God’s Rottweiler,” as the new pope was called, are both global enforcers with cult followings.
Just as the vice president acted to solidify the view of America as a hyperpower, so the new pope views the Roman Catholic Church as the one true religion. He once branded other faiths as deficient.
Both like to blame the media. Ratzinger once accused the U.S. press of overplaying the sex abuse scandal to hurt the church and keep the story on the front pages.
Dr. No and Cardinal No parted ways on the war — though Ratzinger did criticize the U.N. But they agree that stem cell research and cloning must be curtailed. Ratzinger once called cloning “more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction.”
As fundamentalism keeps marching across the globe, U.S. conservatives are thrilled about the choice of Ratzinger, hoping for an unholy alliance. They hope this pope — who seems to want a smaller, purer church — encourages a militant political role for Catholic bishops and priests.
Ratzinger did not shrink from advising American bishops in the last presidential election on bringing Catholic elected officials to heel. He warned that Catholics who deliberately voted for a candidate because of a pro-choice position were guilty of cooperating in evil, and unworthy to receive communion. Vote Democratic and lose your soul. “Panzerkardinal,” as he was known, definitely isn’t a man who could read Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech urging that pro-choice politicians be allowed in the tent and say, “He’s got a point.”
The Republicans can build their majority by bringing strict Catholics and evangelicals — once at odds– together on what they call “culture of life” issues.
But there’s a risk, as with Tom DeLay, Dr. Bill Frist and other Republicans, that if the new pope is too heavy-handed and too fundamentalist, his approach may backfire.
Moral absolutism is relative, after all. As Bruce Landesman, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah, pointed out in a letter to The Times: “Those who hold `liberal’ views are not relativists. They simply disagree with the conservatives about what is right and wrong.”