The Sacred College of Cardinals is supposed to be one of the world's great deliberative bodies.
Yet, despite the many challenges faced by the Catholic church, the deliberations regarding the selection of a successor to the late Pope John Paul II put more of an emphasis on speed and continuity than creative consultation or soul searching.
Barely 24 hours into the first conclave of its kind in more than a quarter century -- and after only a handful of votes -- the cardinals settled on the frontrunner for the job: German Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger.
Past popes have often confounded expectations, so it difficult to say with certainty that Cardinal Ratzinger represents a poor choice to lead the world's largest Christian church.
But all indications suggest that the cardinals have opted for the most cautious and conservative candidate.
Cardinal Ratzinger, who will now be identified as Pope Benedict XVI, has for a quarter century been the church's heavy.
As the prefect since 1981 of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy that was formerly known as the Holy Inquisition, he has been more responsible than anyone except John Paul II for the church's rejecting of reform and its persecution of progressive thinkers. The group Catholics for Free Choice notes that, "The cardinal's historic role as a disciplinarian means the tradition of the punitive father is maintained within the Roman Catholic church."
As The National Catholic Reporter reported several years ago, many serious observers of contemporary Catholicism believe that, "Ratzinger will be remembered as the architect of John Paul's internal Kulturkampf, intimidating and punishing thinkers in order to restore a model of church -- clerical, dogmatic and rule-bound -- many hoped had been swept away by the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 assembly of bishops that sought to renew Catholicism and open it to the world. Ratzinger's campaign bears comparison to the anti-modernist drive in the early part of the century or Pius XII's crackdown in the 1950s, critics say, but is even more disheartening because it followed a moment of such optimism and new life."
It was Ratzinger who laid the groundwork in the early 1980s for the crackdown of the Liberation Theology movement, which sought to identify the church more closely with the struggles of the poor. And it was Ratzinger who, in 1985, silenced Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, arguably the most prominent proponent of efforts to put the church on the side of the Latin American workers and farmers who were seeking a fairer distribution of the region's resources, a fuller democracy and a brighter future for their children.
Ratzinger's modern-day inquisition against Boff and his followers moved a church that had seemed to be entering a new era back toward its most reactionary roots. And it did not end when Boff disappeared into a Franciscan monastery in Brazil.
Over the years that followed, Ratzinger led drives to punish moral theologians who embraced religious pluralism and encouraged dialogue within the church. Liberal Catholics in the U.S. well remember Ratzinger's moves to undermine American bishops who sought to find a place in the church for gays and lesbians such as Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who was also a leading critic of the Reagan administration's support for military juntas and death squads in Latin America.
As the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. noted in 1999, in an article on Ratzinger headlined, "The Vatican's Enforcer": At the most basic level, many Catholics cannot escape the sense that Ratzinger's exercise of ecclesial power is not what Jesus had in mind."
It was his awareness of Ratzinger's record that led Father Andrew Greeley, one of the American church's most prominent thinkers, to observe before the Cardinals began Monday voting that, "I'd be dismayed if Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's official heresy hunter for a long time, is the next pope."
Now, it seems that the best hope is that papal tendency to defy expectation -- that the Vatican's enforcer will pull a "Nixon goes to China" and become the church's modernizer.
Father Greeley says, "Maybe a Papa Ratzinger can change, too." For the sake of the church, and the world that is so frequently influenced by it, let us pray that Greeley's words prove to be more than wishful thinking.