The decision to appoint Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy seems to have come a time when America and Europe are close to falling off the Catholic map.  It also seems that in light of this, the selection of Pope Benedict XVI may be a sign that the Catholic Church neither is ready to change nor, indeed, wants to change.  America is no longer a bastion for Catholicism.  Even more so, Europe has gained in what is being termed “secular” thought.  What does this mean, though?  Is it really secular or just separatist?

In this very young 21st century, unchallenged Catholic dogma seems to have a deep foothold in Africa and South America.  It is within these continents that a majority of papal support seems to flow forth freely.  Hence, I believed that the next papal selection would arise from these Catholic strongholds.  Yet, he did not.  For the first time in over a thousand years, we have again a German pope (“we” meaning the world and, perhaps, the Catholic portion of my religious self), which truly confounds me.  Germany?  Really?  What I know of modern Germany is that if it is even religious at all, it is mainly Protestant.  So, again, why Germany?  I think there are several possible reasons for this.  Pope Benedict XVI was Pope John Paul II’s “enforcer,” if you will.  He was the hound that was unleashed when Catholics went astray.  He is dogmatic, indeed.  Conservative?  Yes, by default.  His concern for the minutia of staunch Catholicism probably can’t be challenged.  But, is it the minutia that needs attention paid to?  The questions that are yet to be answered concerning peace in the face of war, poverty in the face of fascism and empire, and the general health of the Catholic church around the world are the deciding factors of this future papacy.

American Catholics, whether they like it or not, have been and are being left by the wayside.  Catholics here cause too much trouble with their lax attitudes toward the rules of the church.  The Vatican looks down upon this, but, personally, I think this is good.  But does this mean that American Catholics can expect to stay Roman Catholic?  I don’t know.  I’m leaning more to the fact that in order to be Catholic, followers need to follow the dogma of the church.  It may sound this simple, but it isn’t.  This is why I say that the selection of Pope Benedict XVI spells the beginning of the end for American Catholics.  It may also bear the final blow for Catholics in Europe, who, through a long and drawn out process, have filtered themselves away after the Reformation.  Is this the end of Catholicism?  More than likely, no.  Is this the end for American Roman Catholics?  I think so.

This brings us back to the papal criticism (brought on by Pope John Paul II) of “secular” America and Europe.  Catholicism has absolutely no bearing on those of us that are secular in nature.  None.  The reverse is true, as well.  No, when the Vatican criticizes the secularists, they are speaking in code.  They speak of separatists, not secularists, but do not want to describe those Catholics as reformers for fear of spreading the idea that change is possible but is greatly feared by the old guard.  The separatists, more well known as pro-choice Catholics, Catholics for married priests, Catholics for the ordination of women, are radicals in the eyes of the Vatican and, therefore, cannot and will not be dealt with.  So, in a manner easier to define, the separatists are called secularists so as to strip them of their spirituality and their religion.  There is strength in revolution.  The Catholic Church knows and greatly fears this.

So, here we are again at a crossroads.  At stake is American Catholicism.  As my wife put it earlier today, I was “one conclave away from returning to Catholicism.” It saddens me that a chance at renewing the vigor of an ancient religion is being surpassed under the shadow of what can only be termed fundamentalism.  Refusal to change and evolve while still grasping the strings of religious tradition is completely possible.  It may not be easy (ask the Episcopal Church of America), but it is possible.  Perhaps Benedict XVI is only a holdover while the church rethinks its position in the world.  Perhaps he is not.  Here we are again; a new beginning, a new struggle.