THE world can only rejoice at the rapid selection by the cardinals of a new pope and wish the Roman Catholic Church and its new leader well at this critical time in the church's history. It appears that the primary consideration in the selectors' minds was continuity. In that sense their choice was predictable and logical.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, hereafter known as Pope Benedict XVI, was for many years the trusted, faithful adjunct and follower of Pope John Paul II. Whatever analysis might be made of the overall state of the Catholic Church after the 26 years of John Paul's reign, his signature was that he took the church with him and traveled everywhere, to the end, touching millions of people.
His impact in freeing Eastern Europe from godless Communist rule was substantial; his approach to contact and cooperation with other faiths was wise.
That said, the cardinals could have done otherwise in opting for continuity. They are being faulted by some now for not having taken a bold step in making their choice.
They could have reflected the demographic shift in worldwide Catholicism by choosing a pope from Latin America or Africa. Instead, they chose another European - not an Italian, but a German, or more precisely, a Bavarian.
They could also have chosen a pope with a reputation for taking a more liberal and modern approach to some of the formidable issues facing the Catholic church in the 21st century.
These include, notably but not exclusively, the shortage of priests, which could be remedied by ordaining married priests or women, birth control, child sexual abuse by clergy, the approach to divorce, remarriage, and sexuality, and - perhaps related to these issues - slipping attendance and closed churches, particularly in Europe, but also here in America.
Instead of making a choice of pope that perhaps would have suggested changes of position in addressing these issues, the cardinals chose instead an older, theological conservative.
And age must not be overlooked here. At 78, Pope Benedict will certainly not have as many years to run the church as his predecessor, and that may have factored in to the cardinals' decision. A pope, after all, serves for life. He is thus given a clean slate to write on.
Cardinal Ratzinger's record and views were certainly taken into account in the cardinals' choice of him. But only now will Pope Benedict XVI's record as the powerful leader of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide begin to be written.
It will be entirely fair to judge him in the end by how he meets the challenges his church faces. In the meantime, the Catholic Church's 265th pope ventures into his reign with the world's congratulations and its prayers.
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