New pope will need Benedict's diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:00am

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new leader of the Catholic Church will bring continuity - and controversy.

He was a close friend of the late Pope John Paul II and was regarded as his right-hand man. The two men shared similar conservative religious beliefs. And the German cardinal is an experienced member of the Vatican's bureaucracy.

Safety, stability and continuity were, therefore, prime considerations for the 115 cardinals who swiftly elected Cardinal Ratzinger.

But there are doubts about whether the man regarded as a combative hardliner will be able to match the success of his predecessor in reaching out not only to Catholics but also to the rest of the world.

John Paul was immensely popular and showed during his 27 years as pontiff that the leader of the Catholic Church can still exert a great influence upon world events.

He was able to skilfully blend his belief in the traditional values of the church with a warm, outgoing personality and a preference for dialogue as the best means of resolving disputes. John Paul successfully spread his message by travelling to every corner of the globe.

The new pope is a very different character. As cardinal, his hardline stance on social and religious values led to him being described as 'God's rottweiler' and the 'Pope's enforcer'.

This is largely a consequence of his role for the past 24 years as leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the Vatican department that used to be known as the Inquisition.

In that role, Cardinal Ratzinger cracked down on attempts to liberalise the church or deviate from its traditional values.

He has, over the years, made his personal views well known. He is strongly opposed to birth control and supports celibacy in the priesthood. He has suggested that women should not even sing in the church choir, let alone be ordained as priests. And he has described homosexuality as an evil. Even rock music has been denounced.

The new pope will, like his predecessor, provide clear and uncompromising spiritual guidance for followers of the Catholic Church. But his election has disappointed the millions of Catholics around the world who had hoped for a more modern and liberal approach.

He is unlikely to curb the relative decline in support for the church in the west. Indeed, there are suggestions he would prefer to have a smaller but 'purer' church than one that bends with modern trends. He could be a divisive choice.

The new pope's stand on birth control is also likely to mean that the church will not change its stance. This is difficult to justify given the influence it could exert in helping to prevent the spread of HIV and Aids.

There had been some hopes that a South American, Asian or African pope would be chosen for the first time. The choice of another European shows that the church does not yet consider itself ready to make such a move - although these parts of the world are now where most Catholics live. Such a development will surely come in the future. The new pope is 78. It may be that he is seen as being a transitional figure.

His election is seen by some as a backward step for the church. That remains to be seen. He is regarded as kind, gentle, softly spoken and highly intelligent. But Benedict XVI is unlikely to become a globe-trotting media superstar in the style of John Paul II.

The new pope may lack the personality that made his predecessor so successful. But he will, in his own way, need to strive for unity.

Perhaps he had this in mind when opting for the name Benedict. The last Pope Benedict diplomatically sought to bring together those with different opinions. This is a quality the new pope will need.

Continuity is assured. But avoiding controversy will be much more difficult to achieve.



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