THE SWIFT election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics reaffirms the church's conservative direction and a fealty to religious doctrine first and foremost. How Benedict XVI, the 265th pope, adapts that commitment to faith to the 21st century problems facing the church will be the 78-year-old pontiff's greatest challenge. Issues such as HIV/AIDS, the rise of Christian evangelicals in Catholic Latin America and the complex advances in biotechnology come to mind.
By virtue of the new pope's age, this papacy will be a transition, a bridge from the 26-year reign of Pope John Paul II to a papacy perhaps from the Third World, where the majority of today's Catholics live. But it's clearly a mandate to carry on Pope John Paul's religious legacy, and Cardinal Ratzinger is ably suited to that role: He served as the Vatican's chief enforcer of Catholic doctrine. The Bavarian-born cardinal drummed out dissident voices and silenced debate. He opposed the ordination of women, criticized the moral relativism in today's world and emphasized the superiority of Catholicism. Ironically, as a bright, young theologian, he distinguished himself as a progressive at Vatican II in 1968.
FOR THE RECORD - An editorial Wednesday on the election of Pope Benedict XVI included an incorrect year for Vatican II. It ended in 1965. The Sun regrets the error.
Pope Benedict XVI's hard-line theological beliefs and support for a centralized church will work for and against American Catholics. In the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church, some Catholics have argued for a greater role for the laity and more leeway for pastors to operate their ministries. That's unlikely to occur under this pope, as is any discussion of allowing priests to marry. But the pope's definitive stand on the primacy of church beliefs will resonate with traditional Catholics.
Despite his age, the choice of Joseph Ratzinger was not a surprise: He was a close friend and adviser to Pope John Paul and a leading contender for the job. But that's not to say Pope Benedict XVI won't surprise his flock. Although he spent the past two decades at the Vatican, this son of a police officer described himself to a cheering crowd at St. Peter's Square yesterday as "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord." Whether he will travel as widely as Pope John Paul, elicit the same electricity and extend his hand as graciously to other religions is still a question.
Pope Benedict XVI will have an opportunity this summer to embrace the youngest members of the church at a mid-August youth day in Cologne, Germany. His message then will be instructive for all Catholics and an indication of the potency of his voice.