By Elizabeth Scalia

"I have known this man for a very long time, and what I am seeing, frankly, is the man I have always known." ~ George Weigel to the New York Times, on Pope Benedict XVI

In 2005, while awaiting the peal of bells and the white smoke signifying the election of the successor to Pope John Paul II, chattering gasbags of the pundit class killed time by analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the "papabile frontrunners." The news media and their analysts seemed to agree on one point: the election of Joseph Ratzinger -- who as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been characterized for years in the press as the "ruthless enforcer" of Catholic orthodoxy -- would be a catastrophe. Ratzinger's "ruthlessness" consisted mostly of discouraging the "liberation theology" that too-often runs hand-in-hand with socialist enterprises, and insisting that Catholic theologians -- particularly those teaching at Vatican-sponsored Catholic colleges and universities -- either present the faith as something more than a relativistic intellectual playground, or (as in the case of Hans Küng) give up the title of "professor." Or teach somewhere else. 

To some it might seem reasonable that a man of the church would expect those teaching it to do so with a measure of fidelity.

For the chatty media, however, the idea of "God's Rottweiler" as pope meant the continuation of the seemingly objectionable notion (insisted upon by his stubborn predecessor) that a pope might uphold actual Church teachings on abortion, euthanasia, divorce, etc. Presumably none of the cardinals entering the papal conclave would have -- upon ascending the Chair of Peter -- simply declared that "everything we taught before is canceled" and signed on with the progressives, but for sure, Ratzinger would not be the man to do it.

What was needed and desired, the talking heads informed us in ceaseless litany, was a pope who would "bring the church into the 21st century" and reconcile it to abortion, divorce, gay marriage, women priests, celibacy, and condoms. The press seemed willing to pretend that Joseph Ratzinger was the sole stumbling block to progressive ambitions. Then, preaching to his fellow cardinals just before the conclave, Ratzinger further annoyed many of the chatterers by warning against "building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

Not much liking that, Notre Dame's Fr. Richard McBrien sniffed: "If Cardinal Ratzinger were really campaigning for pope, he would have given a far more conciliatory homily. . . . He's too much of a polarizing figure."

In fact, Benedict is less "polarizing" than simply consistent in his faith and his philosophy; having experienced a life with which few of his critics could ever identify, he dares to stand for more than "whatever . . . ":