“Habemus papam” — We have a new pope.
Those were the words marking the successful election of a new pope that were greeted with cheers in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday. But the announcement that has the potential to unite 1.1 billion Christians worldwide was greeted with cautious optimism by the rest of the world.
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who will from now on be referred to as Pope Benedict XVI, had close ties with Pope John Paul II who passed away earlier this month. Benedict’s traditional, “conservative” views largely reflect those of John Paul.
Benedict, for example, has stated in the past that homosexuality is a “tendency” toward an “intrinsic moral evil,” which likely comes as a disappointment to those hoping the new pope would take a leading role in establishing civil rights for homosexuals. But what is probably the most prevalent civil rights issue of our time will likely not receive an endorsement from the new pope; rather, the opposition from the Catholic Church is likely to continue under the new leadership.
Benedict, however, has a promising track record in terms of other human rights issues. His past experiences, particularly his involuntary association with the Hitler Youth when he was 14 and his involvement in WWII before he deserted, give him insight into what is needed to oppose regimes or ideas that inhibit basic freedoms.
Prior to the announcement, most media outlets played the guessing game. Speaking to the BBC German commentator on religious affairs, Wolfgang Cooper said if Ratzinger was to become pope it could divide the Church instead of uniting it, as he was a “scientist” who “prefers intellectual discussions.”
This assessment reflects the fears of many, but it also has the chance to help causes, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS. While entire regions of the African continent have an infection rate of over 66 percent, John Paul preached abstinence as sole way to not contract the deadly disease. John Paul even implicitly stated the use of condoms went against the Church’s moral guidelines, effectively making a dire situation worse.
It can only be hoped that Benedict’s standing as “scientist” will allow the Church to take a stance it deems morally sound, while also dealing with the facts it faces every day. While the “power” wielded by the pope has diminished in past centuries, his influence is still considerable. It can only be hoped Benedict will use his influence wisely.