But with Web cameras trained on the Sistine Chapel chimney, obituaries hailing John Paul II's media mastery and reports in business bible The Wall Street Journal on the church's "financial woes" and "strategy" for countering the global growth of Islam, it's hard not to view the new pope's role as akin to that of chief image-maker facing a host of marketing challenges.
Seen through that lens, the choice of conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-who took the name Benedict XVI-indicates the church is focused on its core base of believers and not willing to pander to those in the U.S.-which remains the largest source of Vatican donations-who have called for a more progressive approach.
CARRYING THE TORCH
This focus on its core comes despite the fact that Islam has grown at twice the rate of Catholicism over the last 30 years, surpassing it as the world's largest religion.
While the new pope shares his predecessor's traditionalist philosophy on issues such as birth control, homosexuality and marriage for priests, there's no sign of the kind of charisma that allowed the popular Pope John Paul II to paper over deep-seated ideological differences within the church.
His election led journalists and church experts around the world to complain that the choice of a doctrinal conservative would do more to divide the diverse groups that make up the church's 1.1 billion-strong congregation than unite them, especially if he can't find a way to relate to his flock emotionally.
"He's immediately got this image that he will appeal to very conservative people in the church," said Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and media at Syracuse University. "He's got an image as an enforcer."
The image derives in no small part from Cardinal Ratzinger's background as a close confidant of John Paul II and the fact that he is best-known for furthering the dogma and cracking down on left-leaning Latin American priests. His priorities are expected to skew toward an ongoing rhetorical war against the creep of secularism, rather than deal with pressing social issues like poverty or the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the church's largest growth area, or controversial church issues such as the priest shortage, which many feel could be fixed with progressive remedies like ordaining women or allowing priests to marry.
the smallest constituency
And while issues such as the Church's unbending anti-abortion stance have met resistance among some Catholics in the U.S., this country is by far the smallest in the papal constituency. The U.S. is home to only 6.2% of the world's Catholics-half that of Africa and about a quarter of Europe, the native land of the new pope. Nearly half the world's Catholics-43%-reside in Latin America.
Still, the U.S. is the main source of donations to the Vatican, according to The Wall Street Journal, which said the Vatican takes in about $250 million a year, operates at a slight loss and has taken financial hits stemming from the weakness of the dollar and the costs of sex-abuse settlements.
Pope Benedict XVI is seen to lack the charm of John Paul II, which translated so well to the mass media and, by extension, forged intense emotional connections with vast numbers of believers. After his death, John Paul II's mediagenic qualities topped most obituaries, which tallied up his number of international trips-he made 104-to places like Cuba and Mexico and a host of destinations never before visited by a pontiff.
That eagerness added to a mastery of several languages, and the handsome and hale appearance he enjoyed during his early days as pope led observers to wonder whether the cardinals could find anyone who measured up in that regard. "From the very beginning to the very end, his papacy was a mass-media event," said Timothy Thibodeau, a papal historian at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. "That's not because he wanted to titillate or manipulate but because he wanted transparency."
John Paul II was often lauded as "the first modern pope" and is discussed in similar terms as world leaders like Ronald Reagan. "People didn't always agree with the policies they promulgated, but at the end of the day people understood exactly where they were coming from and where they were trying to go by their sheer ability to communicate," said Harris Diamond, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos' Weber Shandwick Worldwide. "They transcended individual policies that people actually disagreed with."