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Tale of Two Hardliners: Ratzinger in Rome, Tom DeLay in D.C.

You could call this “the week of the two Hammers.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the doctrinal enforcer of the Roman Catholic Church, was elected pope. And, in Washington, D.C., House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) escalated his efforts to keep himself in power. [IMGCAP(1)]

In their distinct realms, the two have notable similarities: They are both devoutly Christian, rigidly orthodox in philosophy and authoritarian in style. Both mix religion and politics. They are both enormously effective in their jobs. And they both terrify moderates and liberals, who think they’re bent on imposing their belief systems in the secular realm.

The pope and the Majority Leader have admirable personal virtues. Benedict XVI once was an esteemed academic theologian. He has written more than 40 books and speaks 10 languages. He is said to have a gentle, mystical side and a loving manner.

DeLay, though no intellectual, is devoted to the welfare of foster children. He and his wife, Christine, have helped hundreds in their own home and in a Texas facility they support.

But, as they interact with the rest of humanity, the two do so as hard-line, even ruthless ideologues. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the new pope rigorously stamped out dissent and opposed reform.

Wisely enough, he helped Pope John Paul II suppress Liberation Theology, which sometimes gave religious cover to violent Marxists. But he also silenced nonviolent theologians who simply disagreed on doctrine.

One of them, Hans Kung, called the new pope’s ideology a “medieval, anti-Reformation, anti-modern paradigm.” Ratzinger opposed abortion and euthanasia, in conformity with John Paul’s dedication to a “culture of life,” but he also resisted the ordination of women, married priests and relaxation of the ban on birth control.

Benedict XVI’s biographer, John Allen, has written that, “having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism.”

In the homily he delivered prior to the Conclave that elected him, he warned against “dictatorship of relativism … that recognizes nothing as definite.” But he seems to favor instead a “dictatorship of certitude” that brooks no debate and recognizes no areas of gray.

One might say this is all of no concern to anyone but Roman Catholics. (For the record, I am a church-going Protestant.) However, the pope has political power — and this pope seems inclined to use it, in a manner that’s rather different than the last.

Instead of reaching out to other faiths, as John Paul did, Ratzinger declared other religions to be “deficient” and specifically opposed the admission of Turkey into the European Union.

Last August, he told the French newspaper Le Figaro that “Europe is a cultural phenomenon, not a geographical one. The roots that have formed it are those of Christianity. Turkey … is founded upon Islam and could instead attempt to bring a cultural continent together with some neighboring Arab countries.”

He also intervened with U.S. Catholics to, in essence, discourage them from voting for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Roman Catholic, because he supports abortion rights. (Kerry lost the Catholic vote.)

And, while he disparages homosexuality as a grievous sin, he dismissed the priestly pedophilia scandal as an attempt by the U.S. media to degrade the church.

DeLay, an evangelical Protestant, seems to share many of the new pope’s social views. And, in terms of his political style, he might be called an Early Old Testament Christian — the type who believes in smiting his enemies with the jawbone of an ass rather than loving them or turning the other cheek. DeLay, for instance, notoriously tried to turn Washington’s K Street into a place for GOP patronage, where Republicans could fatten party coffers.

Under massive attack from Democrats and aggressive scrutiny from the media, DeLay this week lashed out at his persecutors, charging that attacks on him are actually attacks on the conservative movement.

In an e-mailed “fact versus fiction” defense document, DeLay said (correctly) that he has never been found to have violated any law or House rule. Still, he seems to be one major disclosure away from disaster, his fate seemingly in the hands of his old friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under federal investigation for allegedly bilking American Indian tribes.

What’s most disturbing about DeLay’s defense tactics are his off-again, on-again threats against the independence of the U.S. judiciary. He said on Tuesday that Congress might redefine the constitutional proviso that gives federal judges lifetime tenure “on good behavior.”

Assessing the relative positions of Pope Benedict XVI and Majority Leader DeLay, there’s one significant difference. The pope can, if he wishes, offend moderates through his rigorous orthodoxy and, if necessary, pare the Catholic Church down to its most loyal core.

But politics, unlike religion, is all about building and keeping majorities. If DeLay scares or offends moderates sufficiently, he risks losing control of the House — assuming, of course, that Democrats have the wit to offer something positive as an alternative.

One thing seems nearly certain, though: DeLay, tough and talented though he is, will never be pope — that is, Speaker of the House.

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