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POPE BENEDICT XVI
NEW HEAD OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FACES CHALLENGES AS RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL LEADER

A new pope has risen to lead the Catholic Church, the 264th successor to the Chair of Peter. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election upholds Catholic tradition to lay the supreme burden of guiding a flock of 1 billion faithful on the shoulders of a single man.

As he assumes his powerful new role, Pope Benedict XVI will face challenges as both the head of the Catholic Church and as a world leader whose office has heavily influenced the world agenda for centuries. Neither can be underestimated. Given the new pope's history as a committed man of God and scholar for more than 50 years, we trust he will undertake his new leadership role with thoughtful devotion.

We also have every hope that as the primary teacher and guardian of the Catholic faith, he will serve as a responsible shepherd to the millions who await his moral guidance and teaching. For centuries, the pope has been the moral beacon of the Catholic Church -- protector of a faith that has never shied away from differentiating its interpretation of good from evil, right from wrong, no matter the modern world's social standards. This is both a source of admiration and frustration for those who see the new pope as a conservative man during a time of ever changing social, political and economic pressures.

Many liberal-minded American Catholics are understandably worried about Benedict's reputation as a hard-line conservative on stances such as women in the church, homosexuality and the celibacy of priests. They worry such doctrines may ultimately hurt the strength and influence of the Church among its own followers. But these issues are not the only ones that deserve attention. The pope also has promoted human rights for the oppressed, protection of the weak, assistance to the poor and the noble quest for peace. These are important attributes for any world leader.

The media coverage of the past few weeks is testament to the world's recognition of the pope as a major political force. And if we have any concerns regarding this election, they rightfully belong here. Some of Benedict's previous positions have been troubling.

He downplayed the Church's sex abuse scandal, initially calling it part of a media campaign to discredit the church. He has supported the denial of communion to pro-choice politicians, criticized the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS epidemic and argued against the admission of Turkey to the European Union because of its largely Muslim population. These positions concern us because they do not serve the best interests of our global society. However, we understand that many of the hard-line positions Benedict promoted as president of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith reflect the responsibilities of that office.

Now that he has been elevated from the shadows to serve as his own beacon of light, we are eager to see how the pope will choose to make his mark on the Church. We already have reasons to be hopeful. In his first major papal message to the world, Benedict noted his desire to reunite all Christians, to continue talks with leaders of non-Christian faiths and to carry out the reforms of Vatican II.

All of those objectives are praiseworthy. We wish him well.