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Pope Benedict XVI: A Controversial Conservative

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was well known among his colleagues and the speed of his election came as little surprise to most observers.

For nearly 25 years, Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Vatican office that ensures the world's billion-plus Catholics do not stray from the church's core teachings. He also served as a strong behind-the-scenes administrator for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The new pope, Benedict XVI, grew up in Nazi Germany and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1951. During the mid-1960s, he took part in the Second Vatican Council that liberalized Catholicism.

Father John Langan of Georgetown University in Washington describes the philosophical transformation Pope Benedict underwent decades ago. "He is somebody who started out as a liberal and progressive theologian and then, partly in response to the kind of experimental period after Vatican II, became starkly conservative. I think he felt that the fundamental values of Western civilization were in danger of being lost and it was the responsibility of the church to defend them."

Since then, Cardinal Ratzinger has insisted that to be a part of the church, one has to closely follow its positions on divisive issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

Chester Gillis who teaches at Georgetown University says Catholics who disagree with the new pope may have little room to voice their opinions. "I don't think he'll change the teachings of the church on a whole range of issues," he says. "All of these will be maintained as they have been maintained. This is what Catholicism teaches, so be faithful or move on."

And that, says Georgetown University's Father Langan, could spell trouble for Catholicism. "I think in all probability, a fair number of Catholics will give up and either leave the church or fall into silence."

An important issue to the estimated 67-million Catholics in the U.S. is the sexual abuse of children by some Roman Catholic priests. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger has characterized the scandal as a "planned campaign" against the church. But Sister Christine Schenk with the group Future Church, which seeks a more inclusive and tolerant Vatican, says Pope Benedict must acknowledge the seriousness of the sex abuse scandal. "What he said in the past is not going to serve him well as he tries to build bridges to the many in the church who have very grave questions about how the institution is handling clergy's sexual misconduct," she says.

The church has had to deal with a rapidly changing world in the past half-century. But theologian Father John Langlois of the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington says Pope Benedict is not likely to waver in his core beliefs. "He will speak with a very strong, firm voice on all sorts of different issues. He's going to be very good in terms of dealing with all of the issues surrounding new technologies and the morality of these different things -- stem cell research, human cloning and so forth."

Some observers say the election of a German as pope may have been, in part, in reaction to the steady decline in European church membership in recent years. Father William Stetson of the Catholic Information Center says Pope Benedict and his predecessor have called on European Catholics to follow their cultural heritage. "Both the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger thought that Europe needs to recognize that its self-identity is intimately connected with its Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman roots," he says.

As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger publicly cautioned against admitting Turkey to the European Union, stating that the continent is largely Christian. That has left some observers wondering whether the new pope will reach out to non-Christians as did John Paul II. Georgetown University's Chester Gillis believes that effort will indeed continue, though perhaps in a different manner.

"I can't imagine that he won't continue some of the outreach efforts of his predecessor," he says, adding "Inter-religious dialogue may be difficult, but I don't think he will abandon that quest. But he may take a little different tack, saying 'We speak from a position of truth.' How that would play out, both inter-religiously and politically, I'm just not sure."

Benedict XVI says he is committed to "open and sincere dialogue" with followers of all religions. Even so, Marc Morozowich of Catholic University says Catholic and Muslim reconciliation may be a long process. He says Islam must also give some ground. "The Muslims have to do a lot of self-searching. History is a two-way street. Christians have every right to remember the things that have been done wrong against us. It's a one-way history to just look at the crusades as something done against Muslims."

Some Vatican observers say that Pope Benedict's election may reflect a desire to maintain the status quo while leaving room for a new leader in the not too distant future. But because the late John Paul II has chosen nearly all of the church's cardinals, many analysts say Vatican doctrine may not change for years to come.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.