Germans Proud, Wary of Benedict XVI

"We are the Pope!" Germany's biggest-selling daily screamed on its front page Wednesday, reflecting national pride in the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search) as the 265th pontiff.

But the Bild newspaper's joy was far from universal. Berlin's left-leaning Tageszeitung daily appeared with a black front page and the simple headline: "Oh, my God."

While many Germans fear Benedict XVI (search) will maintain the conservative path laid out by his predecessor, there was no disputing the sense of pride at seeing one of their own rise to the papacy, 60 years after the end of World War II.

"It is an important sign of the final return of Germany to the international community, which the Roman Catholic Church has also chosen to reflect," Cardinal Karl Lehmann (search), who heads the Roman Catholic German Bishops' Conference, said in Rome.

"It is a great honor for our country," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

An overwhelming 76 percent of Germans questioned late Tuesday by Infratest dimap said a German pope was a good thing. Another 63 percent of the 529 Germans polled said they considered Ratzinger a good choice.

The polling company gave a margin of error of between 1.9 and 4.4 percent.

Congratulations also came from the heads of Germany's Jewish and Islamic communities, both expressing hope the new pope would maintain dialogue with other world religions.

Engelbert Siebler, an auxiliary bishop in Munich who knew the pope from his time there, said he felt the new pontiff would strengthen the work of John Paul II.

"Pope John Paul II was the pope who was known all over the world and Pope Benedict will be a pope who has the intellectual strength to rule the church," Siebler said. "I hope he will do all the things inside the church that John Paul II did outside the church."

There was disappointment, however, among more liberal theologians and Catholics who had hoped the next pontiff would be more open on views that have caused some Germans to turn their back on the church, such as the role of women, celibacy and birth control.

"The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope is an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope," said Swiss-born theologian Hans Küng (search) — who knew the pope during his more liberal days as a professor at the University in Tübingen (search) in the 1960s.

In 2003, the most recent year for which figures were available, some 26.165 million Germans — nearly 32 percent of the population — belonged to the Roman Catholic church, according to the German Bishops' Conference. The same year, nearly 130,000 people left the church.

Nearly as many Germans — 25.836 million in 2003 — belong to the Protestant church which traces its roots to Martin Luther, father of the Reformation in the 16th century. German society is also highly secularized, with widespread acceptance of abortion and birth control.

The new pope "must find a new path," said Christian Weisner, spokesman for the liberal We Are Church movement. "The church must be open for women, it must find a new position on sexuality, it must take steps toward the interdenominational dialogue. It is very important."

In many ways, the problems facing the Catholic church in Benedict's homeland mirror those it faces around the world — too few priests, growing agnosticism and a feeling of alienation from the conservative decrees in Rome.

"The road facing the new pontiff is steep and stony," Bild columnist Paul C. Martin wrote.

In the nave of the Frauenkirche (search) in downtown Munich, where Benedict XVI served as bishop and cardinal in the late 1970s before going to Rome, 59-year-old Christiane Koerprich said she had mixed feelings about the new pope.

"He is very conservative, and that means the wishes of many people won't" be filled or fulfilled, Koerprich said.

"But I don't know him personally, and I think in general it's good to have a German pope."

Even German Cardinal Joachim Meisner (search), who insisted that "it is the person who counts, not the nationality," said he had to admit he was proud the new pontiff "is one of ours."

"I always said he was the best horse that we have in the stable," said Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne.