You may find this hard to believe, but for a second there I was genuinely excited to hear that Joseph Ratzinger was going to be the new pope. I've always said Cheers was one of television's few classics, and while I had no idea that the former Cliff Clavin had been a practicing Catholic cardinal since the show went off the air, it seemed like an ex–sitcom star just might be the perfect person to give that musty old Vatican a kicky postmodern makeover. I imagined him appearing for his regular public address and cracking, "Now, here's a little-known fact . . . ," and, oh, just having everyone in stitches. You know—give the people an ironic chuckle or two now that the whole "don't use condoms" shtick has become such a tiresome running gag with Third World audiences.
Then, dammit, I realized I was thinking of John Ratzenberger, not Joseph Ratzinger, and all my hopes deflated. Not only has Joseph Ratzinger never sidled up next to someone named Norm with a cold mug of brew in his hand, but evidently he has a medieval religious doctrine that makes the late Pope John Paul II look like Abbie Hoffman. I hate when that happens. Leave it to the Vatican to decide on an inspirational leader for the 21st century and they propose a 78-year-old Bavarian with a closed mind and the face of Uncle Fester. You just can't win with that crowd, can you?
Clearly not one to leave us wondering how far right his scepter will lean, the new Pope Benedict XVI immediately piped up with this little gem: "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. . . . We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one's own ego and one's own desires."
Great—a man of Germanic descent who gets to stand on a balcony and talk about the glories of tradition.
Even though I'm no fan of the papacy, some small part of me still hopes that such a position of power will one day fall to an ordinary person who recognizes the evolving faith of ordinary people. You have to wonder if the Vatican knows something we don't, some Da Vinci Code–like secret that promises future world domination if it just sticks to its guns, or if it's just such a pea-brained dinosaur that it can only lumber forward toward its own extinction. What else to make of a church that, in a time of often-revolutionary flux, backs a man opposed to change, a man who, according to MSNBC News, once ordered a nun "to stop ministering to gays and lesbians"? If the Catholic Church ever wants to have an honest dialogue with the wide variety of people who, to paraphrase Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, do the majority of living and dying in this world, then it's time the Vatican select someone other than Old Man Potter as its Grand Pooh-Bah.