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American cardinals Wednesday painted a softer and more nuanced portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, who in his role as a Vatican official for many years had a reputation for being authoritarian and dismissive of dissent on some of the church's thorniest doctrinal issues.

They cautioned their flocks against hasty judgments of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the cardinals whom they elected Tuesday as the 265th pope.

"We have to get to know this man, and the more people know him as (the cardinals) have, the more they will love and appreciate him," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.

Ratzinger, 78, served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 23 years under Pope John Paul II and was considered the primary "enforcer" of the pope's most orthodox teachings on topics such as birth control and sexuality, divorce and remarriage, and celibacy and the all-male priesthood.

As a result, Ratzinger became a lightning rod of criticism, particularly among some American Catholics, for the stances of the church.

Under Ratzinger, the congregation removed several Catholic theologians from their academic posts. That includes the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a Rochester priest who in 1987 was removed from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he was teaching sexual ethics.

Curran got into hot water after writing that homosexual acts in the context of a loving, permanent relationship could be considered morally acceptable.

Curran, now on the faculty of Southern Methodist University, said he was "disappointed" by Ratzinger's election but also noted that many American Catholics were being unrealistic about the results of this conclave.

"No new pope was going to dramatically change church teaching or discipline in the beginning of a new papacy," Curran said.

Critics say moves by Ratzinger during his times as head of church doctrine resulted in the silencing of debate and innovative research in controversial theological areas.

But the U.S. cardinals Wednesday praised Benedict as an extraordinarily bright and scholarly man with a caring and humble heart.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., disputed the notion that the pope was not open to dialogue or new ideas, calling it a "skewed vision."

"My experience with him has really been of a man who consults, who reads up on things and does his homework," he said.

McCarrick said he anticipated a "good deal of consultation, a good deal of collegiality" with the newest pontificate.

Some of the cardinals pointed out that Ratzinger's role within the Vatican curia put him in the spotlight for criticism, even though he was not solely responsible for unpopular decisions and statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Such decisions and statements are the result of the work of many people "and always must be in the tradition of the church," McCarrick said.

Benedict on Wednesday made overtures to the cardinals and bishops, requesting their prayers and "constant, active and wise collaboration."

He signaled that his "primary commitment" would be to work toward full Christian unity.

"Expressions of good feelings are not enough," Benedict said during his first homily as pontiff, at a Mass in the Sistine Chapel. "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."

The pope also tried to reassure Westerners by emphasizing his commitment to the Second Vatican Council, a reforming assembly of the church that finished its work 40 years ago.

The council, which has been called into question by some conservative Catholics, led to a different style of liturgy and such changes as the institution of the permanent diaconate. Its teachings, said Benedict, were "especially pertinent to the new exigencies of the church and the present globalized society."

Cardinal Justin F. Rigali of Philadelphia pointed out that Ratzinger's choice of name, Benedict XVI, connects him with the precouncil age of Benedict XV, the pope who worked futilely for peace during World War I, and with St. Benedict, known as the patron saint of Europe.

Benedict XVI represented a church continuity not only to the beloved John Paul II, but to Benedict XV and to St. Peter, Rigali said.

Benedict XVI would be "the great proclaimer of Jesus Christ in the world," he said.

Other cardinals noted their own personal interactions over the years with the new pontiff.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York City recalled his departure from Rome in 1985 after 14 years of working in the curial offices.

Ratzinger cut short an out-of-town retreat so that he could return and say goodbye to Egan in person.

"He was extraordinarily kind to me," Egan said. "That is a characteristic that you will come to know in him as these months and years pass."

Benedict, like his predecessor, has been a prolific author, and Egan suggested that reporters begin reading what the man has written in order to understand him more fully.

Some of the prelates also suggested that a cardinal grows into the papal office -- a post much larger than any person occupying it.


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