VATICAN CITY—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, a strict doctrinal conservative who believes the church should fiercely resist the pressures of secularism, emerged from St. Peter's Basilica on Tuesday as Pope Benedict XVI.
"Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me—a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," the 78-year-old pontiff said in Italian to a buoyant international crowd of tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square.
Thousands cheered and chants of "Benedicto," went up, but the jubilant frenzy seemed to fade a bit as the white-haired German emerged onto the balcony in a luminous white robe covered by an ornate embroidered sash.
Ratzinger seemed a surprising pick despite accurate pre-conclave speculation. Until about six months ago, conventional wisdom dictated that he was too polarizing a figure to be elected pope.
Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr., who in 2002 wrote an oft-consulted book on the papal election process, didn't include Ratzinger among his top 20 candidates, even though he had written a biography of the German prelate some years before.
Ratzinger was elected on the fourth or fifth ballot, just over 24 hours after the conclave began. Allen called it a "staggering choice."
Yet George Weigel, author of Pope John Paul II's authorized biography, "Witness to Hope," described Ratzinger as a "brilliant, holy, shy man who will surprise people with his new responsibilities."
He added: "I also think people will discover—if they haven't already—that the cartoon image of him as a `panzerkardinal'"—that is, as a harsh authoritarian—"is just that: a cartoon."
Ratzinger's selection showed that the 115 cardinal electors were seeking a transitional figure who probably won't shape the church to the extent that John Paul II did in his 26-year reign. Ratzinger worked closely with John Paul, acting as almost a vice pope in recent years as the late pontiff became increasingly incapacitated.
Ratzinger, who was a member of the Hitler Youth and a deserter from the German army during World War II, spent the last quarter-century in Rome as the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer, heading a bureaucracy known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In that capacity, he supervised the disciplining of hundreds of priests and theologians who strayed from accepted teachings. He also oversaw many official church declarations that outraged Catholic progressives, including a pamphlet last year on the role of women in the church that blamed feminist thought for fostering "opposition between women and men" and a 1986 document that called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil."
But, speaking after a dinner with the new pope, some American cardinals suggested that they know a different side to Ratzinger than the one that earned him the nickname "God's Rottweiler."
"He's a very loving and lovely person, completely unassuming, with no pretenses," said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York. Asked how Ratzinger will go over in the United States, he said, "I think he'll play very well as soon as people get to know him. Watch for a while."
Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said that when he went to congratulate the pope, Benedict remembered to wish him happy birthday.
"I was humbled by that very human touch," he said.
Rigali suggested that support for Ratzinger wasn't something that coalesced only in recent days.
"Decisions aren't made on how people impress you in the last five minutes, the last hours or in the last days of the conclave," he said.
In the short term, a Ratzinger papacy could further alienate many Catholics in Europe, where church attendance has plummeted in recent decades, and in the United States, where most Catholics have long stopped heeding church teachings on such matters as the ban on contraception.
The new pope is among those who believe that it's better for the church to be smaller than to compromise its core beliefs.
"Some people are jubilant; they see a continuity with John Paul," said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "But those who had hoped for someone more moderate—someone who would be more accommodating pastorally on such issues as birth control, divorce and remarriage, the role of women in the church and reaching out to gay people—may be disappointed."
Gillis said it appeared in choosing Ratzinger—whose career has been as a theologian, professor and archbishop—"the cardinals chose a theological vision of the church that will assert itself forcefully on matters of doctrinal and morality, rather than a pastoral, on-the-ground sense of church."
For that reason, Ratzinger is also unlikely to provoke immediate enthusiasm in Latin America or Africa, where many were hoping either for a pope from the developing world or a figure who's concentrated on issues of poverty and social justice.
However, Ratzinger's firm line could appeal to many people who may be attracted to moral certainty in a world growing ever more secular and, to some, devoid of spirituality.
Weigel said Pope Benedict would provide "dynamic continuity" with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
"He will certainly continue the evangelical thrust of John Paul, but with a new emphasis—with new names and programs," Weigel said.
Rocco Palmo, an expert on the Catholic hierarchy who studied the Holy See at the University of Pennsylvania, said Benedict XVI may not hew to the expectations of him.
"A pope chooses new names for a reason: It's because he assumes a new identity," he said. "No matter what he was before, he can become someone new."
But Palmo said it's likely that the hallmark of the Benedict pontificate will be an effort to combat Western secularism, meaning a society divorced from religion.
"He comes from the point of view that the secularism is best combated by a very strong, united, outspoken church."
Americans who are most concerned about the priest sex scandal should be hopeful about Ratzinger, according to two people who met with him on that subject last January, Washington lawyer Robert Bennett and Illinois Appeals Court Justice Anne Burke.
As members of a review board, Bennett and Burke helped lead an investigation that concluded that more than 11,000 children were sexually abused by Catholic priests in the United States over the last 50 years.
Dissatisfied with how U.S. bishops were handling the matter, they sought a meeting in Rome. After sitting down with some cardinals in December 2003, they returned a month later and spend two-and-a-half hours in the Vatican with Ratzinger and his senior aides, Burke said Tuesday.
"I can't believe how excited I am," Burke said. "Cardinal Ratzinger was far more open to meeting with members of the national review board than our own bishops and cardinals. ... I think he wanted unfiltered information from members of the laity who had no agenda."
Bennett added: "Of all of the hierarchy that we spoke to, both American bishops as well as others, there was no one we met who was more interested in what we had to say than was the Holy Father."
Ratzinger's choice of papal name led some to speculate that he was trying to soften his image as the Vatican's hard-liner.
Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, was a moderate by the standards of the time. He followed Pius X, who had implemented a sharp crackdown against doctrinal "modernism."
The last pope from a German-speaking land was Victor II, bishop of Eichstatt, who reigned from 1055-57. The selection of the second non-Italian in a row seemed to cement the end of Italian domination of the papacy. The pope was an Italian for 455 years before John Paul II, a Pole, was elected in 1978.
(Dilanian and O'Reilly report for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Montemurri reports for the Detroit Free Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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