The extraordinary scenes in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II disguised the problems that his successor Joseph Ratzinger – now Benedict XVI, the sixth German pontiff – will face in becoming the spiritual leader of one-sixth of the world’s population: 1.1bn people.
The wave of affection shown to the old pope a fortnight ago was a message the cardinals may have misunderstood.
Many of those thronging St Peter’s Square, as well as the millions watching on television, do not attend church regularly or follow its teachings closely. The election of an uncompromising defender of the faith, one who inveighed against all forms of modern pluralism and defended the “fundamentals” of faith in his sermon before the start of the conclave only on Monday, is unlikely to reinvigorate their devotion.
The explanation is likely to be that the cardinals chickened out of making harder, more long-term choices in this conclave: they have gone for what they perceive to be safety and continuity – maybe in the expectation of a short reign. But by postponing facing the church’s problems, they may have exacerbated them.
It is said that the Catholic church is used to thinking in centuries. In electing Benedict XVI, the cardinals may hope they have opted only for a breathing space.
But they may have got more than they bargained for. The most radical pope of the last century, John XXIII, was also elected at the same age, 78, in 1958 as a stop-gap candidate. But by the time he died five years later he had changed the face of the papacy – made it more human and less remote – and launched the Second Vatican Council that attempted to transform the church.
The election of Cardinal Ratzinger – an outstanding conservative theologian and a courteous, soft-spoken man – may be part of Christianity’s militant reassertion of itself in the face of a secular but fervent and sometimes fanatical world. That will be the hope of conservatives across the world.
He will be unbending in the faith – his nicknames have included God’s Rottweiler and the Panzer Cardinal – and can scarcely disavow his injunctions in recent years which have included pronouncements, in the ailing old pope’s name, that homosexuality is evil, that other religions and Christian sects are defective, and even that women’s place in the church should not extend to allowing them to sing in choirs or serve at the altar. Not much room for dialogue or conciliation there.
He has not had recent pastoral experience, having had to deal more than theoretically with the problems of the world.
It is undoubtedly a divisive and controversial choice. Only yesterday, in St Peter’s Square, the spokesman for one of the US church’s senior cardinals wrinkled his nose in distaste at the thought of a Ratzinger pontificate. No, he said, the cardinal would definitely not be his choice.
The new Pope was undoubtedly the choice of the cardinals who work in the Vatican. He will have some support from elsewhere in the developed world – probably not all that much – and he will have captured the developing world cardinals. They will welcome his firmness and they may well have appreciated his only radical statement in recent years – that maybe there should be a black pope soon.
There is a crisis of faith in many parts of the world that Catholicism once took for granted, but burgeoning support in the developing world, particularly in Africa, where Christianity is in a struggle for souls with militant Islam.
Can the cardinal who has uncompromisingly defended the faith for the past 24 years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the institution once known as the inquisition, reach out to secular, pluralist societies with a new message?
The old pope’s 27-year papacy leaves a huge gap. His successor will not travel the world so frequently. He will not be a media superstar. He does not have his predecessor’s charisma. Nor does he have the extraordinary life story of Karol Wojtyla.
He is much older and less vigorous than John Paul II was when he was elected in 1978 at the age of 58. Cardinal Ratzinger is already 20 years older than that; and his self-description as “a simple, humble worker” is at best disingenuous.
The church faces many problems. The new Pope’s record scarcely sounds as though he is the man to deal with them. But Catholics will certainly know where the church stands – it stands where it did before.