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April 23, 2005
Column #1,234

The New Pope: Benedict XVI                  
      Regular readers of this column may recall that I stuck my neck out last week and made two predictions: that new Pope would be open to making priestly celibacy optional, and that the new Pope would be Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.

     The world's cardinals obviously had other ideas. They elected Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, 78, a German and the closest colleague of Pope John Paul II for 24
years, who has now calls himself Pope Benedict XVI. Clearly, the cardinals chose a man they thought most likely to continue the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

     "Every major papal document under John Paul passed by Joseph Ratzinger's desk. If we are looking for continuity and unfolding his legacy, we have the right man," observed Christopher West, Director of the Theology of the Body Institute in Philadelphia.

     One man who publicly predicted Ratzinger would be elected was Russell Shaw, a
columnist for Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly newspaper and former press spokesman
of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Why?

     "He is a man of towering intellect and integrity and has a great love for the Church. Of all the cardinals, he struck me as far and away the best qualified candidate," Shaw told me.

     Father John Connor, Director of the Lumen Institute in New York, adds, "It is very interesting how quickly the conclave elected the pope. He brings to the table 24 years at the side of John Paul. He is the intellectual equal of John Paul, if not stronger. And, at the same time, he is a man who is deeply spiritual, humble, a true lamb."

     In his first sermon after being elected, Benedict XVI cited his "sense of inadequacy." However, "If the weight of responsibility that now lies on my poor shoulders, the divine power on which I can count is surely immeasurable."

     The cardinals also agreed with his goal to fight the growing secularization of Europe. The drafters of the new Constitution of Europe refused to acknowledge the continent's Christian heritage. Cardinal Peter Turckson of Ghana said, "If the image of the church in Europe is of a dying church, it gives us an orphaned feeling.  It is important that the church in Europe come back alive."

      As the dean (or longest serving member) of the college of cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger preached a sermon on Sunday at a Mass before they locked themselves in the Sistine Chapel to vote for a new pope. He outlined the issue of Europe's growing secularism:

     "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards...

     "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has at its highest goal, one's own ego and one's own desires."

     As the chief enforcer of orthodox Catholic beliefs, Ratzinger fired theologians at Catholic universities who opposed orthodox positions.  This conservatism is very attractive to African and Latin American bishops where Catholicism is growing most rapidly.

     In fact, two-thirds of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in the "Global South," which is one reason I predicted the new pope would come from this region.  However, only a third of the cardinals are from that area.

     What about the issue of priestly celibacy?

     Under the new pope, "you will never see the question of celibacy brought up," asserts A.W. Richard Sipe, author of several books on celibacy.

     Russell Shaw is more hopeful: "At the time of Vatican II, 40 years ago, the ordination of older married men, who no longer have responsibility for small children, who are pillars of the church and family duties are not too heavy - was seriously considered. Nothing came of it.

     "However, with a new pope and with the obvious and growing shortage of priests in the United States, Europe, Africa and Latin America, the idea will be revived. It might be a good thing to do to allow in countries where the bishops request it on an experimental basis."

     Dr. Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac who is writing a quick book on Benedict XVI, notes that since priestly celibacy is a church discipline, not a doctrine, the new pope is "entirely free to change church teachings on that. However, it is unlikely he will do so at any time soon," because it would conflict with "the continuity of John Paul II."

     Don't expect any change with this pope.

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