Two years into his reign, Pope Benedict XVI is finally poised to make a major mark on American Catholicism with a string of key bishop appointments and important decisions about the future of U.S. seminaries and bishops' involvement in politics.
Benedict's election on April 19, 2005, shook liberals and comforted conservatives who expected a doctrinal hard-liner. So far, they have found an easier hand — and a one that has not made the United States much of a priority.
When Benedict has gained attention, it has mostly been on the world stage, focusing on the re-Christianization of Europe, Islam and mending relations with Orthodox Christians. He also has stressed universal themes of faith and reason.
"The last two years have been much quieter years as far as the papacy is concerned because you have a very different personality" than John Paul II, said Monsignor Robert Wister, chairman of the church history department at Seton Hall University's School of Theology.
"Many Americans were surprised — some happily, some disappointed — that he did not turn into the pit bull of dogma. He is taking a very pastoral approach, and I think people resonate very positively with that."
Yet America's turn may be coming. At the top of the list is a looming generational shift among the nation's bishops, whose decisions at the local level greatly affect Catholics in the pews and can carry national weight. For instance, church leaders recently closed parishes in Boston and New York, while the St. Louis archbishop has clashed with a heavily Polish parish over control of its assets.
Key appointments are expected in New York, Baltimore and Detroit, where cardinals have reached retirement age — 75. And in the next two years appointments are expected in five other smaller dioceses, notes George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and John Paul II biographer.
Then there is the potential ripple effect — if some bishops move to larger cities, then they too must be replaced.
"At the end of these two years, we will see what the enduring impact of this pontificate on the leadership of the U.S. church will be," Weigel said.
So far, Benedict has appointed former Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to the prestigious Washington, D.C., archdiocese, and he chose former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada as his successor to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. Levada is the highest-ranking American ever at the Vatican.
While faithful to Rome, neither man has a hard-line reputation. Wuerl, for instance, has refused to withhold Communion from Catholic legislators who support legal abortion. Levada has strongly affirmed traditional Catholic teachings while shepherding flocks in liberal cities — San Francisco and Portland — before that.
Benedict "has tended to appoint people who are moderate, who are good teachers, good communicators and pastoral," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "John Paul II was appointing people who frankly were kind of in-your-face, who were more aggressive and liked playing cop."
"These guys don't want to do that. They're more conciliators than fighters."
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, predicted that for the major posts that lie ahead, Benedict will appoint bishops who are "vibrantly orthodox" and strong communicators.
Neuhaus dismisses suggestions that conservative Catholics such as himself are disappointed that Benedict has not been tougher and derides media portrayals of the pope transforming himself from "God's rottweiler" to kindly uncle.
"There is no evidence whatsoever he has changed his judgment on anything of consequence the last two years," Neuhaus said. "He is a gentle, thoughtful, paternal, firm and loving person. That's the man you see. For those of us who knew Ratzinger over the last 25 years, there were no surprises at all."
Another development to watch: the results of a review begun in 2005 by Vatican-appointed investigators of 229 U.S. Catholic seminaries for evidence of a gay culture and faculty dissent from church teaching. Neuhaus said there is no signal yet on the result of the investigation, which grew out of reforms following the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Some Catholics expected Benedict, a champion of orthodoxy, to crack down on dissident theologians. But there has been no purge. The Vatican did censure the writings of the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a priest in El Salvador and proponent of liberation theology, over his writings about Christ's divinity. Even in that case, however, Sobrino was not barred from teaching or publishing.
In 2004, a few vocal Catholic bishops spoke out against Catholic politicians who take stances in conflict with church teaching, particularly on abortion. The main target then was Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic. This next election cycle, it's a Catholic Republican and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who clashes with the church on abortion and gay marriage. He also is twice divorced, though one marriage was later annulled.
The pope "is taking a forceful approach on a number of life issues," said Wister, of Seton Hall. "He has made very clear his opposition to same sex marriage and abortion. The question is, to what extent he will ask bishops to take very forceful positions or not take steps in the political arena?"
Aside from a few controversies, the man who wanted to retire a cardinal seems to be enjoying the job. An intellectual with no recent experience as a pastor, he is drawing audiences that top those of his more celebrated predecessor. His new book, billed as a personal quest for Jesus, is charting on Amazon.com and it won't be released in English until next month.
"I do think he's having an impact, though it's more the quiet, professorial impact, not the splashy impact," said the Rev. Robert Imbelli, a theologian at Boston College. "He doesn't engage in a lot of showy stuff. He just tries to speak to what is crucial about the Christian faith."