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Pope Benedict XVI — From Enforcer to Enabler?

How can the newly elected pope successfully confront future challenges?

April 25, 2005

How can the newly elected pope successfully confront future challenges?

The reactions to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope are a barometer of the challenges he will be facing.

The headline of one German newspaper, "Oh, mein Gott!" [Oh my God!], reflects the divided views toward Benedict XVI in Germany and perhaps around the globe.

For some, Ratzinger’s election is confirmation that the Church needs a strong, decisive and unwavering leader who can face down the dangers of relativism and secularism — and strengthen the unity of the world’s one billion Catholics.

For others, it is a disappointment that the cardinals chose someone who stresses dogma over dialogue. Both camps may be surprised.

The Catholic Church is working its ways through serious challenges, facing the aftermath of the pedophilia scandals in the United States.

And, in Europe, it has dealth with serious attrition in both overall church membership as well as the number of those who actively participate in it.

The relevance of church doctrines is challenged on both sides of the Atlantic, be it in regard to birth control, abortion or the role of women.

Meanwhile, the Church is experiencing far more growth outside of Europe, a trend which led many to hope that the next pope would not be another European.

There is also a vehement public debate on the relationship between ethics, science and faith in dealing with increasingly complicated questions concerning the so-called culture of life, stem cell research and the quality of life and death in an age of advancing medical capabilities.

The new pope is certainly equipped to engage in these debates. He has been a leading intellectual on ethics questions for decades. In his previous capacity in Rome, he was a forceful and articulate defender of church doctrine.

Now he is challenged to move beyond being an enforcer to being an enabler.

The intellectual prowess he brings to serious dialogue is impressive. But in a world where many people, Catholic and non-Catholic, are searching for a moral compass, he also needs to project empathy.

The debate over values is at once global and local. The struggle to form a consensus around a core set of beliefs is shaped as much by the politics of faith and religion as it is by politics of the environment in which they reside.

The impact of an increasingly secular and global world on the need for a sense of explanation as to where one has come from and where one is headed — that life has ultimate meaning and value — can open doors. But it also draw battle lines across faiths, churches, synagogues and mosques.

The past history of Europe and the current history of Africa and the Middle East are testimony to those choices. The power of religious institutions to shape those choices remains as much political as it is spiritual at the communal, national and international levels.

The pope is therefore a very political force, as is the Catholic Church itself. As such, it is in constant need of maintaining the balance between continuity and change, between tradition and transformation — particularly when it is challenged by the pace and intensity of global change.

If the new pope is going to aspire to such a balance, it will not be accomplished by declaring one side of the equation more important than the other. The force of faith and values in today’s society represents a vital part of the basis for dealing with difficult questions, both sacred and profane.

The pope — one of the oldest ever elected — should come to his new office mindful of his own biography. His life spans the history of Germany, walking into the horrific darkness of Nazism and climbing out of the catastrophe to rebuild a democratic and successful republic exerting global leadership.

Throughout that period, Germans were challenged to conduct their own dialogue with themselves and others, with the need to keep a balance between remembrance and renewal. Cardinal Ratzinger was a part of that dialogue.

As a world leader now, he will need to carry on that dialogue with one billion Catholics and the five billion others who share the world’s future. Never was it more needed than now.

How long Pope Benedict will reign is unknown. When the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany was sworn in, in 1949, he was only five years younger than the pope is today. And he stayed in office for 14 years, guiding the new republic in its first stages after the war.

How Benedict shapes the agenda of his Church will be no less crucial for its future. The results may be far different than anyone can now know for certain. What is certain is that the man will shape the Vatican as the Vatican will shape him in this new chapter which is about to be written.