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In one of the swiftest conclusions to a conclave in a century, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German theologian, has been elected pope to succeed the late John Paul II, who pursued pacifism, human rights protection and inter-religious dialogue. The hope for Pope Benedict XVI — the name is said to suggest peace and reconciliation — is that he continues these policies in performing his new role not only as the spiritual leader of the 1.1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church, but also as a guiding voice in global affairs.

Continuity is a likely prospect because the new pope was one of John Paul’s closest aides. Known as a staunch conservative, Benedict defended Catholic orthodoxy for many years as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. However, his record as the Vatican’s doctrinal chief must worry liberal Catholics who want to deal more flexibly with the secular world.

The swift conclusion of the conclave — which, unlike protracted sessions of the past, reportedly lasted 24 hours with only four rounds of voting — indicates that the Vatican remains united after the death of John Paul, who ruled the church for 26 years. Given his advanced age of 78, though, it appears that the role for the new pope may be a transitional one.

The fact that the new pontiff is a rigid conservative — some call him an “enforcer” of strict Catholic doctrine — makes it likely, if not probable, that he will take a harder line on contentious issues such as birth control, abortion and female priesthood. If this happens, efforts to reform the church may suffer a setback.

It is not constructive to draw lines between conservatives and reformists, for both sides face a common question: how to deal with changes in today’s society while protecting the Christian faith and doctrine. Fundamentally, the challenge for the new pope is to work toward greater harmony between religion and secularism.

Benedict is the second consecutive non-Italian to head the Vatican in the modern era. Nationality is no longer a decisive factor in a papal election. Given the global reach of Catholicism, particularly its growing influence in Latin America and Africa, what is required of the church is more, not less, internationalism. In this sense, the task for the new pope is to carry on with John Paul’s policies of peace diplomacy and global dialogue.

Benedict XV, who guided the church during the turbulent years of World War I, made great efforts to bring about peace, although his policy of strict neutrality was criticized by belligerents on both sides. Benedict — whose Greek origin means a “blessing” — is a fitting name for a pope in a world riven by war, terrorism, poverty, pollution and other grave problems.

John Paul, notwithstanding his strictly conservative stand on Christian doctrine, apologized for “mistakes” committed by the church in the past, such as the Crusades, the inquisition of heretics and the persecution of Jews. Widely traveled, he made more than 100 trips around the globe as pope. He promoted dialogue with other religions by reaching out to Muslims and Jews. He believed strongly that the new times required a modernization of Catholicism and reform of the church.

In the area of foreign relations, the new pope faces two daunting tasks that were left unfinished during the reign of his predecessor: One is to achieve reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church. The other is to restore diplomatic ties with China.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which is said to regard Catholic missionary work on its turf as reflecting the “expansionist policy” of the Roman Catholic Church, is calling for a reversal of that policy. It won’t be easy to resolve the millennium-long dispute between the Eastern and Western churches.

In China, meanwhile, Roman Catholic churches continue to conduct underground activities. Beijing is demanding that the Vatican sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a condition for building relations with China.

Even more difficult to handle are the issues of bioscience and ethics. John Paul said the inquisition of Galileo, who had advanced the Copernican theory, was a mistake, but maintained a conservative view on ethical issues related to life and sex. For example, while appealing for an antipoverty campaign in Africa and other developing regions, he opposed contraception — considered a practical means of preventing the spread of AIDS — on the ground that “life must be respected.”

No cynicism or criticism is intended here. The point is that church modernization and reform — which John Paul strove to achieve — must not be allowed to stall. A positive attitude is also required in dealing with issues of science and religion.

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