VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The cardinals who elected Pope Benedict XVI and the priests who worked with him at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had a common message about the new pope: Do not believe everything reporters have told you.
While the 78-year-old German theologian spent 24 years defending Catholic doctrine and moral teaching, there was always a deeply spiritual, quiet, kind pastor behind the pronouncements, they said.
The then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's conclusions about specific theologians and their teaching, about trends in theology and about moral questions have been described either as clear or as sharp.
Some may debate whether as prefect of the congregation he always had to act when he did or if advancement in theology requires time and room for debate and correction by colleagues; but when Cardinal Ratzinger put on his scholar's hat and engaged in public debates with other scholars, there was no denying the twinkle in his eyes and the smile on his lips.
He enjoyed the sparring.
Last October, he and an Italian historian discussed history, politics and religion in a Rome debate.
The cardinal told the scholar and Italian government officials, members of Parliament and Vatican officials in the audience, "We find ourselves in a situation in which it would be opportune to dialogue.
"Our moral capacity has not grown at the same rate as our potential power," especially when it comes to the ability to manipulate, prolong or terminate human life, he said.
His somber assessment of the world's moral confusion did not outweigh the obvious delight he took in an opportunity to engage in a public debate where theological and philosophical terms and names could be tossed into the conversation with no need for explanation.
Even while serving as the Vatican's moral and doctrinal "watchdog," a task often covered in silence, the future Pope Benedict continued to be a prolific public speaker, author and subject of interviews.
He has published more than 60 books: scholarly theological tomes; responses to questions; collections of speeches and essays; and memoirs on his first 50 years of life, published in English in 1998 as "Milestones."
In "Milestones," he wrote about being born in Marktl am Inn, Germany, April 16, 1927 -- Holy Saturday that year -- and being baptized on Easter in the newly blessed waters.
"Personally, I always have been grateful for the fact that in this way my life from the beginning was immersed in the paschal mystery, which could not be anything other than a blessing," he wrote.
The future pope's father was a policeman, and the family moved frequently during his youth. According to his memoirs, he was only vaguely aware of the poverty and political strife building up in Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.
He joined his brother, Georg, at the minor seminary in 1939, and said he found it difficult to study in a room with 60 other boys, but got used to that.
"What weighed more heavily on me was that every day included -- in homage to a modern idea of education -- two hours of sports," he wrote. He was the smallest boy in the class and the games were "a true torture."
The book-length interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger -- the 1985 "Ratzinger Report," the 1996 "Salt of the Earth" and the 2002 "God and the World" -- showed a prelate with clear ideas, worried about the state of the Church and not the least bit hesitant to respond to questions.
The interviews cover many of the same topics the doctrinal congregation had issued statements on: the Second Vatican Council; theological dissent; liberation theology; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; the special place of the Jews in salvation history; liturgy; the role of women in the Church; and collegiality and papal primacy.
But they also attempted to delve into his spirituality, prayer style and the events that shaped his life.
He told Peter Seewald, author of the 1996 and 2002 books, that he believes God "has a great sense of humor."
"Sometimes he gives you something like a nudge and says, 'Don't take yourself so seriously!' Humor is in fact an essential element in the mirth of creation. We can see how, in many matters in our lives, God wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly; to see the funny side of it; to get down off our pedestal and not to forget our sense of fun," he said.
Seewald asked the future pope if he had ever been tempted to leave the Catholic Church; the cardinal said it would "never have entered my head," because his whole life has been bound up with the Church.
However, he said, "there are things about her (the Church), big and little, that are annoying. From the local Church, right up to the Church's overall leadership, within which I now have to work," he told Seewald in an interview conducted in 2000.
When Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the meditations for the Good Friday Way of the Cross service at Rome's Colosseum this year, he spoke much more soberly about members of the Church who no longer believe in Christ as the true savior, who abuse others, who do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist or who have abandoned the sacrament of reconciliation.
His words on sex abuse and other clerical scandals were much stronger than any public comment he had made since 2001, when the doctrinal congregation began requiring bishops to report abuse cases to the congregation.
In the 2005 meditation, he wrote: "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him."
In a November 2002 speech in Spain, Cardinal Ratzinger had said, "In the Church, priests are also sinners."
However, he said, "I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a distortion of the reality because the percentage of these offenses among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower."
Serving as dean of the College of Cardinals, the future pope opened the April 18-19 conclave with a homily many people described as negative or pessimistic.
It was not a new accusation.
Cardinal Ratzinger had spoken on more than one occasion about his belief that the Catholic Church would get smaller and smaller, but that eventually the world would discover the hope and joy present in the small community of true believers and be attracted again to the Christian faith.
"When I said that," the cardinal told Seewald, "I was reproached from all sides for pessimism. And nowadays nothing seems less tolerated than what people call pessimism -- and which is often in fact just realism."
The challenges the Church faces continue to change, he said, but God continues to be with it.
As the chief defender of Catholic doctrine and morality, Cardinal Ratzinger had a major role in drafting the 1992 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" and, especially, its 1997 revised passages on the death penalty -- judged unacceptable in most cases -- and on homosexual orientation, which it said was "objectively disordered."
While he has said all people must be treated with love and respect, he said no one can change Christian moral teaching that homosexual acts are sinful and no one can equate a gay union to marriage between and man and woman without denigrating the human, moral, social and religious significance of marriage.
One question on many minds since Pope Benedict's election was: What will happen to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and to its liturgical reforms?
In "The Ratzinger Report," he said the post-conciliar Church "seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction" with a growth of dissent and more people abandoning Church practice.
The cardinal said it was not the fault of the council, but of Catholics who thought that renewal of the Church and dialogue with the modern world meant embracing the world's agenda without any sense of responsibility or limit.
Nevertheless, Pope Benedict told the world's cardinals April 20: "I want to forcefully affirm the strong desire to continue in the task of implementing the Second Vatican Council."
He said Vatican II's documents were especially relevant to the modern Church and today's globalized society and that the council's "authoritative" rereading of the Gospel would guide the Church in the third millennium.
Pope Benedict did not mention the council's liturgical reforms.
In the early 1980s, then-Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly mentioned his belief that the council's liturgical reforms did not include the mandate that the priest face the congregation while celebrating Mass. He said he felt the Church should have preserved the ancient practice of the congregation and priest facing East during the eucharistic prayer.
By the time he published "The Spirit of the Liturgy" in 2000, he acknowledged that issuing new rules to have the priest celebrate with his back to the people was no longer pastorally practical.
"Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal," he said.
He gave a similarly pastoral reply when Seewald asked him if the Mass should be celebrated in Latin.
"That is no longer going to be possible as a general practice, and perhaps it is not desirable as such," he answered.
But he did call for "a new liturgical consciousness, to be rid of this spirit of arbitrary fabrication," that might be clever or entertaining but not "the Holy One being offered to me."
The other big question looming in people's minds was: What would Pope Benedict's approach to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue be?
The question was prompted by the doctrinal congregation's questions over the years about joint ecumenical agreements, but mostly because of the congregation's 2000 document, "Dominus Iesus," on salvation in Christ alone, its 2000 document on "sister Churches" and its 2001 criticisms of Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, author of a book on religious pluralism.
Speaking to seminary rectors two months after "Dominus Iesus" was released, the cardinal said it "expresses with great clarity the central point of our faith, that is that the Son of God was made man and that a bridge exists between God and man."
The document was the focal point of ecumenical and interreligious controversy because of its firm statement that Christ and the Church are necessary for salvation, leaving those who do not believe in Christ or are not part of the Church feeling like the congregation was denying that their faith offered the possibility of salvation.
The cardinal said at the time he was most disappointed in the negative reaction of Jewish leaders and groups to the document.
"I did not expect it at all because for me it is evident that we come from the roots of Israel and that their Bible is our Bible and that Judaism is not just one of many religions, but is the foundation, the root of our faith. We share the faith of Abraham," he told Vatican Radio.
The other 2000 document insisted the term "sister Churches," frequently used among Christians, was to be used by Catholics only in reference to Orthodox and other Churches that "have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist."
The document was criticized by many Anglicans and Protestants, as well as by Catholic ecumenists.
Catholics involved in interreligious dialogue also expressed concern after the congregation's 1998-2000 investigation of Father Dupuis' 1997 book, "Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism," an investigation focused on the issues raised in "Dominus Iesus."
In early 2001, the congregation praised Father Dupuis' desire to explain the theological significance of the presence of so many religions in the world, but it said the book contained ambiguous statements and insufficient explanations that could lead readers to "erroneous or harmful conclusions" about Christ's role as the one and universal savior.
Under Cardinal Ratzinger, the doctrinal congregation was increasingly sensitive to criticism about the methods it used when investigating theologians and their work.
In 1997, Cardinal Ratzinger said his new "Regulations for Doctrinal Examination" would safeguard the rights of theologians under review. The biggest change was the possibility for the theologian to name an advocate and an adviser to assist in his examination.
The commentary issued with the notification on Father Dupuis went out of its way to say the "tone" of the Vatican statements was not meant to sound authoritarian, but it had to be assertive and definitive so that the faithful know that "these are not matters of opinion or questions for dispute, but central truths of the Christian faith that certain theological interpretations deny or place in serious danger."
After celebrating Mass April 20 in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Benedict, in referring to himself, told the cardinals who elected him that he would assume as "his primary commitment that of working tirelessly toward the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty."
Also referring to himself, Pope Benedict said, "he is aware that to do so expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism."
He also told the cardinals, "I address myself to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it."
"The Church," he said, "wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialogue with them, in a search for the true good of mankind and of society."
And while not shy about talking tough, as a cardinal Pope Benedict avoided "fire and brimstone" phrases and cautioned others about attributing apocalyptical threats to God or to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In 1996, four years before Pope John Paul II released the so-called "third secret of Fatima," Cardinal Ratzinger told a Portuguese Catholic radio station that the pope had shown him the message.
"I am certain," he said, "that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not create fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential."
The Vatican published the complete text of the Fatima message in 2000, interpreting it as a vision of a long war waged by atheistic regimes against the Church. It included a figure of a "bishop in white" who falls in a hail of gunfire, which was presumed to be a reference to the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul in 1981.
At a press conference marking the publication of the text, Cardinal Ratzinger said, "There does not exist an official definition or official interpretation of this vision on the part of the Church."
Like any private revelation approved by the Church, he said, the Fatima message "is a help which is offered" to Catholics for living their faith, "but which one is not obliged to use."
In a commentary on the message, he said the vision described the path of the Church through the 20th century as a "a journey through a time of violence, destruction and persecution."
Cardinal Ratzinger said he believed the particular period of struggle described by the vision had ended, making it appropriate to reveal the secret's contents.
The reality of evil and of threats against the Church are topics Pope Benedict has discussed often.
When the future pope was a child in Adolf Hitler's Germany, school officials enrolled him in the Hitler Youth movement. He said he soon stopped going to the meetings. But when he was 16 he and his classmates were conscripted into an anti-aircraft unit that tracked Allied bombardments; although in uniform and staying in barracks with other soldiers, the seminarians also continued their studies. Later, young Ratzinger was drafted into a worker's battalion, then into the army.
In the spring of 1945, when Hitler had died and it appeared the war was almost over, he deserted his unit and returned home. When the U.S. military arrived, he was arrested with other members and former members of the German army and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp for several months.
In "God and the World," Seewald asked the then-Cardinal Ratzinger about Hitler, the devil and evil.
"One certainly cannot say that Hitler was the devil; he was a man," the cardinal said. However, he added, "I believe one can see that he was taken into the demonic realm in some profound way, by the way in which he was able to wield power and by the terror, the harm, that his power inflicted."
Read More CNS Reports on Pope Benedict XVI
Visit Pope John Paul II Biography Feature