A theologian of the past, not a pastor for the future

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The Roman Catholic Church yesterday chose a new Pope much as it had said farewell to the last one: in a blaze of television lights, massed crowds in St Peter's Square - and an atmosphere that owed as much to a television reality show as to the solemn consideration of a spiritual leader of the world.

The Roman Catholic Church yesterday chose a new Pope much as it had said farewell to the last one: in a blaze of television lights, massed crowds in St Peter's Square - and an atmosphere that owed as much to a television reality show as to the solemn consideration of a spiritual leader of the world.

In the event, the 115 cardinals meeting in the Sistine Chapel chose quickly and conservatively. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the late Pope John Paul's "enforcer", was the choice that most Vatican insiders expected and many liberals, both Catholic and non-Catholic, had feared. Arch-traditionalist in doctrine, disciplinarian in practice, centralist in organisation, he is a man expected, and chosen, to consolidate the papacy of his Polish patron. The Vatican may not have returned to its Italian lineage, as many in Italy had hoped, but it has kept to a European pontiff despite the justified hopes of the more numerous and faster-growing African, Asian and Latin American churches.

Pope Benedict XVI, as he is to be known, was not chosen to satisfy the secular liberals, of course. It is a little too easy to dismiss him as an ultra-conservative intent on preventing birth control, pursuing heretics and harassing homosexuals - but such a caricature is not entirely inaccurate. By background and training a theologian, however, he is one of the finest minds in the church and, despite his 78-years, an energetic figure. The beam that suffused his features as he came out on the balcony to show himself to the crowds - the first time many had seen this man smile in public - was of someone who knew what he wanted and had got it.

Given that 114 of the cardinals were appointed by John Paul II, it was never likely that the church would chose a liberal successor in terms of doctrine. By choosing Ratzinger, the Vatican appears to have plumped for a safe pair of hands, a man experienced enough to keep the machine in working order, conservative enough not to rock the boat and old enough not to hold the position too long. That, far more than his doctrinal orthodoxy, was probably the deciding factor.

By voting, however, for the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, the cardinals have implicitly endorsed John Paul's centralism. There is little hope here for those bishops who had wished for a more decentralised organisation. Just as the Church of England has done with Rowan Williams, the Roman Catholics have preferred a theologian over a pastor, and that poses a threat to its growth and health, particularly in countries where congregations are in decline. And it is an inescapable truth that in choosing a man of quite such notorious conservatism, even if he is a transitional figure, the Vatican has sent out a sign that will be ill-received among the many Catholics who never approved of John Paul's doctrinal fundamentalism but accepted them as the price for his charisma and moral leadership.

The choice of such a reactionary figure will dismay many outside the church too, coming in the wake of a man who made the church so much part of the global debate. On vital issues such as the rise of Aids in Africa and Asia, the oppression of women in the developing world, the place of homosexuals in society, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed a voice and used it to damaging effect. Pope Benedict may lack the charisma of John Paul but he is just as likely to give his views on politics and, sadly, just as likely to come down on the wrong side of some of the most important issues facing our world. The white smoke that issued from the Vatican chimney signalled a speedy decision - and the continuation of the Vatican's war on the modern world.

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