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Opinion: As papacy turns 5, dark clouds gather

Catholic forces of the left and right are at odds over Benedict's legacy.

Pope Benedict XVI (C) waves from the deck of a catamaran as he arrives to Valletta Waterfront to attend a meeting with youths in Floriana April 18, 2010. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

BOSTON — Five years ago today, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, all eyes were on the white smoke that curled out of the chimney above the papal residency inside the Vatican.

A new pope had been elected.

“Habemus Papam!” Latin for “We have a pope!”

Or as one of my more cynical colleagues in the American press corps in Rome texted me on my cellphone that day as we both reported the papal transition: “Habemus Nazi!”

News rippled through the crowd in the square that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man once dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” in his role as head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who had served in Hitler Youth as a young seminarian coming of age in Germany — had been elevated to the papacy.

Ratzinger had taken the name Pope Benedict XVI and appeared on the balcony waving to thousands gathered in the square.

From the moment he was elected by the College of Cardinals and their ballots were burned, providing the white smoke that is the signal a pope has been chosen, this pope has been controversial. His election further opened a deep division in the church.

The main fault line runs along the forces of modernity that uphold Vatican II, the council under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s that sought to bring the church more into the modern world, and the forces of conservatism that are aligned with Benedict XVI and believe in the need for a return to orthodoxy.

The more left-leaning side believes that the heart of the message of the Catholic church should be aligned with Jesus’ teaching on a role of social justice in the world and a penchant for the poor. The right-leaning side is concerned with an erosion of moral values in Western societies and seeks to uphold the orthodoxy of the Catholic church against homosexuality, forbidding an enhanced role of women in the church, and making sure the struggle against AIDS does not involve the use of condoms.

It’s a deep fault line within the church and one that many people who are not Catholic — and even many who are — don’t understand very well. It has a long, complicated history. But, according to those historians and journalists who watch the church, the forces on both sides are arrayed in ways that seem more dramatic than ever in this papacy.

As the sex abuse scandals continue to cast a dark shadow over the church and particularly its leadership, there is a growing consensus on the left-leaning side of the church that Benedict XVI’s papacy is irreparably tarnished. There have even been some calls by priests, including one in Massachusetts, for the pope to resign. Don’t hold your breath. It’s not going to happen. At least, not any time soon.

The more right-leaning side of the church has fiercely defended the papacy and rallied around Benedict.

But clearly this is a papacy that has been tone deaf on so many issues, not only the issue of priests as sexual predators but also on relations between the Catholic church and Judaism and some insulting comments made about Islam. This pope has done a great deal to set back the interfaith dialogue which was advanced under Pope John Paul II.