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Pope begins eighth year promoting conservative values

Pope Benedict XVI began his eighth year as pope Tuesday after spending the waning days of his seventh driving home his view of the Catholic Church, with a divisive crackdown on dissenters and an equally divisive opening to a fringe group of traditionalists.

The coming year may see more of the same as the Vatican gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 church meetings that reshaped the Catholic Church and are key to understanding this papacy and Benedict's recent moves to quell liberal dissent and promote more conservative Catholicism.

Tuesday marked the anniversary of the start of Benedict's pontificate, which officially began April 24, 2005, with an inaugural Mass in St. Peter's Square. The pope promised then not to impose his own will on the church but to rather listen "to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the church at this hour of our history."

Seven years later, Benedict has certainly left a mark on the church, pressing a conservative interpretation of Vatican II's key teachings, appointing like-minded bishops and making his priority the revitalization of traditional Catholicism in a world that, he often laments, seems to think that it can do without God.

He set out many of those priorities in a December 2005 speech to his closest collaborators running the Vatican, insisting that Vatican II didn't represent a break from the past as many liberal-minded Catholics would like to think but rather a renewal of the church's core teachings and traditions.

The Vatican last week put those words into action, cracking down on the largest umbrella group of nuns in the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The pope's old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed a bishop to revise the conference's statutes and review its programs and publications, and accused the group of taking positions that undermine church teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality, while promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

At the same time, on the very day it announced the crackdown on the U.S. nuns, the Holy See said it was nearing agreement to bring an ultra-traditionalist conservative group of Catholics back into communion with Rome after two decades of schism.

The group, the Society of St. Pius X, broke from Rome after rejecting many of the teachings of Vatican II, particularly its outreach to Jews and people of other faiths, and the sanctioning of the New Mass in the vernacular that essentially replaced the old Latin Mass.

Benedict has gone to tremendous lengths to reconcile with the group, fearing the expansion of a parallel, pre-conciliar church that boasts more than 550 priests and 200 seminarians.

To critics, the coincidence was remarkable: The Vatican was in a way rejecting the U.S. nuns who had embraced Vatican II and its call to go out into the world to serve the poor, while embracing the Society of St. Pius X, which had rejected Vatican II.

Conservatives have championed Benedict's move to bring a more orthodox faith to the church, even at the expense of popularity among liberals.

"Benedict understands his mission as custodian of the faith," said the Rev. Robert Gahl Jr., an Opus Dei priest and professor of moral philosophy at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University. "The pope has little interest in opinion polling and focus groups."

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