Ten years ago, the Rev. Robert T. Schriber was notified by Bishop F. Joseph Gossman that Schriber, formally an Episcopal priest, had been approved to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood and serve in the Diocese of Raleigh.
The letter from Rome granting Schriber permission to become a Catholic priest was approved by Pope John Paul II and signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. At masses last Sunday at his Garner parish, St. Mary, Mother of the Church, Schriber joyfully told that story to his congregation and shared his own joy at the selection of Ratzinger as the new leader of the 1.1 billion-member Catholic Church.
Here's the rub for some Catholics--Schriber is a married priest. Because he was already married, Schriber was given an exemption to become a Catholic priest, an exemption that is not allowed for Catholic men. With the priest shortage crisis in the U.S. getting out of hand, many Catholics wonder if the church hierarchy will take any substantive action to correct a problem that is already having dire consequences for Catholicism.
Ironically, it is unlikely that Pope Benedict will do for the greater church what Cardinal Ratzinger did for Schriber; namely make an exception that allows for married priests, a move that would likely solve the priest shortage crisis. Scores of now-married former Catholic priests would certainly seriously entertain the idea of a return to priestly ministry as married men. The majority of them have never been laicized, so a return to ministry would be a relatively simple process.
Certainly, Ratzinger's selection is being seen as a setback to those who were hoping the next pope would be open to the ordination of women, something that is now considered dead in the water given Ratzinger's penchant for holding strong to tradition.
In addition to creating many large, impersonal parishes in the growing South, the priest shortage is also keeping the Catholic Church from being able to meet the growing spiritual and physical needs of a burgeoning Latino community. Sensing the inability of an overwhelmed, understaffed Catholic Church to meet Latinos' needs, many evangelical and traditional Protestant churches are rolling out the red carpet to Latinos, and thousands have left the Catholic Church to join often smaller, more welcoming non-Catholic congregations.
Since the selection of Ratzinger as pope on April 19, the Internet has been abuzz with opinions of the German pontiff, who had a long legacy of being John Paul's minder of orthodoxy. Some have called him the Intimidator, a Bulldog, the Enforcer, and worse.
While many Catholics take solace in Ratzinger's selection being the will of God, the Catholic Church has had its share of less than stellar popes. Past pontiffs have led Crusades to slaughter "infidels" and others engaged in the practice of simony, the purchase or sale of ecclesiastical pardons or offices.
For the most part, Catholic liberals are giving the pope the benefit of the doubt. Even the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a left-leaning weekly, will not be jumping all over the College of Cardinals for selecting Ratzinger, NCR editor Tom Roberts said in an interview. Benedict's "could be a very interesting papacy," Roberts said.
Therein lies the hope of many liberal Catholics. Benedict, it can be argued, is now the most influential man on the planet. What he says and does will have to be reckoned with by world leaders. There's no doubt he can change the course of global affairs for the good.
It is expected that Benedict will continue the legacy of John Paul on important global issues such as speaking out against war, capital punishment and growing poverty, as well as abortion and euthanasia.
"On war and peace, the new pope makes John Kerry look like Attila the Hun," Catholic intellectual Alan Archibald of Hillsborough wrote in a recent e-mail. While reams of Ratzinger's writings exist on all sorts of topics, Archibald included a copy of Ratzinger's May 2, 2003, statement on war:
"There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.'"
Pretty strong stuff for a conservative, but not everyone accepted the news of Pope Benedict so calmly.
Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and a Catholic, sent out an e-mail written by his brother, the Rev. John Dear, a Jesuit priest and antiwar activist, who in 1993-94 spent about eight months in several North Carolina jails for his part in a civil disobedience protest against a nuclear-capable F-15E Strike Eagle jet at Goldsboro's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
"I love the church and have no ax to grind, but I'm very disappointed at this news," John Dear wrote. "Cardinal Ratzinger spent decades issuing condemnations and trying to control people. He has very little pastoral experience. In his speech the other day, he didn't talk about poverty, hunger, the many wars and nuclear weapons and violence that are destroying humanity. Instead, he talked about law and order and control and domination, and I find that very sad.
"We need to hear more about love and compassion, forgiveness and equality, more about the peacemaking Jesus and less about who is in charge and what the rules are. I think we are going to have more difficult years ahead in the church, but nonetheless, the main duty for every Catholic is to follow Jesus and live the gospel."
Some do see hope in Ratzinger's selection of the name Benedict, which may be his way of saying he wants his pontificate to mirror the work of Benedict XV, a World War I pontiff who issued a 1917 peace proposal that promoted reconciliation rather than victory for either side in the war.
"Perhaps by choosing his name, the new Pope is trying to stir himself and his church to address the growing dangers of world-wide religious war," wrote Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an author and director of The Shalom Center. "Is he ready to commit himself to seek an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq as his predecessor sought to prevent it, and to prevent a global war between the U.S. and Islam?
"To do this would require facing up to issues of globalized corporate capitalism, oiloholic addiction and its threat to scorch the planet, and the tendency of the present U.S. government and of some elements of the Muslim world to ignite a shattering war."
The Catholic peace group, Pax Christi USA, has also kept its criticism of Ratzinger to a minimum.
"We live in a world that hungers for peace amidst war, violence and terrorism," said Bishop Gabino Zavala, president of Pax Christi USA. "In taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, this Pope is acknowledging the role of his predecessors, particularly Benedict XV, in promoting reconciliation and justice as a priority in the global Catholic Church."
Waskow also notes that to achieve some of these lofty global goals, Benedict may have to take on Catholic conservatives, the same constituency that backs the Pope "on issues of sexuality and gender."
The bottom line is that Benedict answers to no one except God, so what he might do is hard to say. The hope is that the new pontiff will be the rock of justice and peace for a world mired deeply in violence and human suffering.