When the slightly built, white-haired prelate appeared at the balcony to give his first papal blessing, many Roman Catholics in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere felt a sense of foreboding.
Benedict XVI, as Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is now known, is not charismatic -- unlike John Paul II. He's not from the Third World, the source of the Church's growth. His nickname in German is Der Panzer Kardinal -- "tank cardinal" -- because of his scary role as the enforcer of doctrinal purity and definer of the party line on priestly celibacy, the role of women in the Church, and more.
And many fear Benedict won't move boldly to tackle all the financial, management, and personnel issues facing the Church. "The organization he has inherited is in massive disarray," says Janet Hauter of Voice of the Faithful, a U.S. lay organization founded in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals.
From a management point of view, then, the choice of the Vatican's new "CEO" could be seen as a serious blunder and a missed opportunity of historic proportions. And if the Church continues to lose ground in the West, such criticism of the cardinals' choice could well prove justified.
Given such pressing problems, why did the cardinals choose Ratzinger? An obvious, political reason is that John Paul II had appointed most of the cardinals, so it was natural they would choose the late Pope's right-hand man. The choice also signals continuity with his monumental papacy. But there are deeper forces at work as well, and it helps to consider them as the world tries to figure out what this new Pope will do. Here they are:
ON VATICAN TIME. The Church is emphatically not a corporation, and it has nothing resembling a next-quarter mentality. It is ancient, and its leaders think in time slots that no modern company could consider: After all, the Church's mission relates to eternity, not annual results.
Put in this perspective, the Church feels no compulsion to fix its problems by making costly compromises. The crises of the past 30 years -- the dearth of vocations, the sex scandals, competition from evangelical Protestants, the de-Christianization of Europe -- are serious indeed.
But the Vatican has been through crises before and has weathered monumental challenges to its authority -- the Reformation, the French Revolution, and the rise of Nazism and communism. With its sense of history, the Vatican is in no hurry to reverse course on issues such as priestly celibacy, human sexuality, and bioethics.
Ratzinger understands the sense of Vatican time well. He has had his own brushes with history, a point that has not been stressed enough. He saw firsthand the Church's disastrous experience with Nazism in Germany, when a concordat between the Vatican and the Nazis failed to protect the Church from Hitler. After the war, he saw the hugely divisive impact of student movements in 1968, when protesters stormed his classroom at the University of Tübingen.
That year "was a turning point for many people," says Klaus Fitschen, professor of Church history at the University of Leipzig. "Society felt the aggression and feared that reform was turning into revolution." Ratzinger also concluded that liberals had distorted the meaning of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The lesson Ratzinger drew from history: If you compromise, you don't gain anything. "He doesn't water things down [to] avoid criticism," says Thomas S. Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza (DPZ ) and a leader of conservative lay Catholics. Ratzinger the doctrinaire appeals to another aspect of Rome's mind-set:
STANDING FOR SOMETHING. Pope John Paul, a onetime actor, played on the stage of the world to brilliant effect, and he connected with the masses. But he was also a theological purist and was abetted by Ratzinger in this purism. To many in the Vatican -- especially Ratzinger -- the point is to bear witness to Christ in the right way. Popularity is not the final goal. If the worldwide Church started to shrink but the remaining members were true believers, purists like Ratzinger might be able to accept that outcome. Opponents of that line argue that the Church's rigid orthodoxy smothers the real message of Christ, especially when it relates to social issues like the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. But Ratzinger's supporters clearly have the upper hand. "The Church can risk secularizing itself," Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate and co-author with Ratzinger of a book on the Church, told Vatican Radio on April 20, "or it can shake up the modern world."
The Vatican can also make the argument that churches that stand for something are the ones that are growing. Fundamentalist Islam is strongly on the rise globally. In the U.S., the most conservative churches are growing -- including the Mormons and evangelicals. In contrast, churches that have made too many accommodations to secular culture are crumbling. And the Catholic Church has strongly conservative constituencies around the world that are expanding. Father Pedro Benítez Mestre, 32, theology teacher at Los Remedios seminary near Mexico City, believes Ratzinger's doctrinal discipline will appeal to many in Mexico, a traditional society where there is virtually no public pressure on the church to allow women priests or to accept homosexuality. "The Pope has to be the guardian of the faith of the church," he says. The Pope is also an accomplished theologian, "one of the best in Europe," says Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame. That leads to the final point to consider:
THE POSSIBILITY OF A SURPRISE. Ratzinger has the hard-line credentials and intellectual underpinnings needed to initiate changes without being attacked from the right. Hervé Legrand, a leading French theologian and Vatican adviser who knows Ratzinger, sees a chance of that happening. "We should avoid caricatures of this man," he says. "He is very conservative. But we could have some surprises." Legrand notes that when John Paul said ordination of women was contrary to the teachings of Jesus, Ratzinger pointed out this was "not a matter of infallible doctrine. It was very subtle. But he left the door open."
Whether that door opens enough to satisfy reform-minded Catholics is impossible to answer now. Some think Benedict will simply act as a caretaker until a younger, more vigorous Pope succeeds him. But Popes have a way of surprising, for good and for ill. One way or another, Benedict XVI will write his page in the papacy's 1,900-year history.
By Christopher Power in New York and William C. Symonds in Boston, with Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt, Carol Matlack in Paris, Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago, and bureau reports