After the cardinals' votes are counted, a white plume from the Sistine Chapel tells St. Peter's Square and the world "We have a pope!" "Havemus Papam," in Latin, once the customary language within the Vatican's walls.
Donning his white zuchetto (cap) the first time, Benedict XVI was installed nearly three years ago. After his landing today at Andrews Air Force base, Americans can join in: "We have a pope." But do we?
According to surveys, most church members in this country practice what is called, by their critics, "cafeteria Catholicism." St. Peter's curia thunders and commands that the Church of Rome is a package deal; the faithful must take all or nothing. Otherwise, they risk being branded heretics and excommunicated. The commands fall generally on deaf ears.
The post-Vatican II movement towards "individual conscience" was stuffed down theologians' throats by the curial Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In earlier days, the same office was known as the Inquisition. It carried that title until the early 20th century.
During the long years, John Paul II cruised the world, kissing the local earth and being hailed for good works, Cardinal Josef Alois Ratzinger was his chief Inquisitor. That was before ascending the throne of St. Peter as Benedict XVI.
The new pope had stained hands each time he made the sign of the cross, blessing men, women and children. He zapped men and women who disagreed. He was guilty, at least, of depriving human beings of the right to think for themselves. Nothing in faith demands that.
In other words, he exhibited strong feelings about returning the church to pre-French Revolution days; but at that time few men and women could even read their names. Their lack of education made them ripe for exploitation by others, including the Vatican.
Pope Pius IX was the last pontiff to treat communicants as less than human. Watching temporal power slip away, he summoned French troops loaned by Louis Napoleon to keep peace in the Vatican states. They shot and bayoneted citizens who questioned by what right St. Peter's successor ruled them; they wanted independence from absolute monarchs.
By the way, Pius IX established the principle of infallibility. Knowing what he wanted, many prelates stayed away from the councils of Vatican I. He received the consolation anyway, as Garibaldi, Cavour and others united Italy, including the Papal States.
By way of reaction to being reduced to a spiritual leader, the pope retreated to the Vatican, shutting out the world. The doors stayed locked until Mussolini, for his own reasons, negotiated the Lateran Treaty. The big avenue from St. Peter's Basilica to the river was named via Della Concillazione – in English, Street of the Conciliation.
Italians have the phrase: trastevere Trevi, which translates "on the other side of the Tiber (River);" it captures the Vatican's isolation from the world.
Examples: While the curia officially wanted to destroy birth control pills, as a reporter in Rome I was told a plant existed less than a mile from the river. The papal financial portfolio also contained shares in an Italian conglomerate that owned pill factories in Sweden.
That one issue occupied Vatican curia attention for much of the 20th century's last half. Worry among American Catholics was considerably less. Poll after poll showed church members using the pills about as frequently as non-Catholics, despite constant excommunication threats from Rome.
A clear unwillingness to obey the pope in that area led to a natural diminishing of respect and fear among Catholics, which contributed greatly to the attitude foisted by today’s visitor. This pope favors elitism over mass appeal.
As I see it, the fight within the church has very little to do with faith and much to do with the hierarchy demanding it must be obeyed – on every point. Prelates like Benedict XVI really believe fewer Catholics would serve the church best.
Talking about contentious lay members, I can remember the late Washington Cardinal Patrick Aloysius O'Boyle waving a hand and saying "Let them go." At the same time, he sucked a tooth, his ultimate expression of exasperation.
The disappearance of clergy is a different subject, while still related to the fading congregations. Concisely, the church has great competition from the market place; young men and women are choosing "regular" lives above the cloister. Celibacy is not as important as many think.
The press has estimated hundreds of thousand, perhaps millions, of American will turn out the next few days to see (for themselves) the man who carries such an antique title.
Whether Josef Alois Ratzinger likes it or not, most will recoil from his attempts to control; and those numbers include a whole lot of people who still call themselves Catholics. I march in their ranks.