Editorial New York Times Pope Benedict XVI

April 20, 2005
The New Pope

Since almost all of the cardinals who met to choose a new pope were appointees of John Paul II, it’s probably not all that surprising that they chose someone as close as possible to the late pontiff. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict XVI, worked in close partnership with his predecessor and shared a belief in staunchly defending orthodox Catholic doctrine. There is no reason to expect any change, of course, for the church when it comes to matters like birth control, priestly celibacy or homosexuality. Those are issues of faith, properly left to the faithful. On matters of public policy, however, all of us have reason to be concerned about the opinions of the leader of more than one billion Catholics.

For instance, as a cardinal, the new pope inserted himself last year into the political debate over allowing Turkey into the European Union. He was quoted as saying that adding Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation of 70 million people, would dilute the culture of what he considers a Christian continent and that Turkey should align itself instead with other Muslim nations. At a time when few things are more important than reconciling the Islamic world with the non-Islamic West, it would be extremely disturbing if the pope became an unnecessary wedge. It would also be out of keeping with the heritage of John Paul II – who, for all his doctrinal conservatism, was a man known for his outreach to people of other faiths.

Like his predecessor, Benedict XVI is not Italian, but he continues the age-old tradition of European popes at a time when the church’s membership is increasingly outside Europe. Its future appears to lie in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in the developing countries of Asia and Africa, where Pope John Paul II was so beloved for his warm, fatherly personality.

At least as a cardinal, Benedict XVI was more courtly than charismatic. He is an accomplished polyglot who is said to speak 10 languages, a theologian of great stature and a man who has had an academic as well as an ecclesiastical career. Anyone who heard his homage at the late pope’s funeral had to have been impressed by his eloquence and devotion to John Paul. It is possible that the cardinals who picked him hoped he would protect the church’s core from doctrinal corruption at a time when more and more of the faithful live in places where congregations are used to adapting their religions to reflect local customs and beliefs.

The new pope is, at 78, not likely to serve long enough to have the kind of impact his predecessor had. But the church has seen men elected as supposedly transitional figures in the past turn into agents for sweeping change. The beloved Pope John XXIII was a recent example. And in an era as fraught with peril as today’s, anyone who occupies the throne of St. Peter is given overwhelming power to do good and responsibility to prevent harm. Today, the world can only wish Pope Benedict XVI strength and inspiration as he takes on this extraordinary burden of spiritual, moral and political leadership.

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