There has been a mixed reaction to the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy.

For many conservatives there was joy and celebration. This was the best of all possible choices. The stunning outpouring of love and respect that the world showed at the death of John Paul II indicated that it wanted more of the same. In Benedict XVI, by all indications, it should get that. His election made it clear that there would be real continuity with what John Paul II had started. It also meant, for them, that the world and the church are to expect no major changes from the Vatican. The church is once again in safe, trusted hands.

For many liberals, though, the reaction was very different. They were, at least initially, deflated and depressed by the choice. Why?

Well, as the whole world knows, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, has been the head watch-dog in the church for the past 24 years and, in that role, accumulated some baggage. He also acquired a persona within which he is perceived as hard, inflexible, ultra- conservative, overly-clerical, negative towards women, regressive on Ecumenism, overly centralizing in his ecclesiology, hostile rather than understanding towards the world, and too prone to listen to selective pockets of malcontents rather than to the wider community. Many of these perceptions are perhaps unfair; he was, after all, a symbolic lightening-rod around which a lot of free-floating frustration and anger could constellate. However it is fair to say that, more than his supporters would be willing to admit, this is how he has been perceived.

Beyond this, there is too the perception that, in choosing him, the Cardinals may have been more motivated by the desire to batten down the hatches against secularity than by the kind of love, concern, risk, and self-dying for the world that Jesus embodied and expressed when he said, “My flesh is food for the life of the world!” In times of uncertainty, clarity too easily trumps everything else, especially risk. Liberals fear this has happened here.

Where do I weigh in on this?

Cardinal Ratzinger wasn’t my first choice and may have been in fact my last choice, but, after some initial disappointment, I’ve made my peace with his selection. Why?

I’ve never met the man, but am close to many people who have and all of them, to the person, attest that his public persona is not accurate, and never has been. Our new pope, they assure us, is more soft than hard, more understanding than judgemental, more respectful than authoritarian, and, as even his critics admit, stunning in his intelligence.

Moreover, as his first homilies and actions already indicate, he promises to be quite different as a pope than he was as head- disciplinarian in the church. As a friend of mine explains it: “I was once a vice-principal in a school, in charge of discipline. Later on, I became the principal, in charge now of animating spirit and life. The different roles gave me an entirely different agenda – and a very different persona.”

Benedict XVI was a brilliant and even liberal theologian before being named to head up the Congregation of Faith and Doctrine. My suspicion is that we will see some flashes of that again, now that he is freed of the watchdog responsibility. He might well surprise everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, as did John XXIII. We might have the surprise of our lives and might find ourselves inside Morris West’s novel, Lazarus, where an aged pope, known for his strong conservatism, stuns everyone by not being what anyone expected.

Finally, there is this too: Given where John Paul II had taken the church and the curia, it might be wise to have a pope, for a while, who will try to move things ahead only slightly, without being a major reformer. Any major reformer would, I suspect, find himself quickly crushed, and not just inside Vatican walls, by the structure and legacy that John Paul II left behind.

Thus, ironically, Pope Benedict XVI might be the best placed person right now to actually achieve any reform. Critics of reform will find it difficult to fight him, given his pedigree. To risk an analogy here: Ariel Sharon, because of his uncompromising pro-Israeli stance and his history in helping establish some of the Jewish settlements in Palestine, might be for that reason precisely the man best placed to dismantle the settlements and lead Israel into a new relationship with Palestine. Like Ariel Sharon, Benedict XVI’s past can be his greatest asset in helping lead us into something new. We may yet see the deep wisdom in this selection.

Beyond all of this of course is the Holy Spirit. Faith asks us to believe in the Spirit’s role in these things even when our personal expectations and agendas aren’t met. The community is more important than personal need. Good will come of this choice, no doubt, even if, for now, not everyone is equally enthusiastic.