So the election yesterday of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope is unlikely to radically alter the church's teachings, its influence in the United States or its role for American Catholics.
"Do not expect any major surprises," said the Rev. John Langan, a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University. "There might only be some differences in nuance."
The new pope is a conservative who has firmly opposed abortion, birth control, euthanasia, cloning and embryonic stem cell research. In his writings, he has made clear that he considers capitalism oppressive to the poor and that the church's truth is absolute.
Like Pope John Paul II, he has also been critical of the secularism of the West, said Mark Miravalle, a professor of theology at Ohio's Franciscan University of Steubenville. For the new pope, the West has seemed mired in "the crisis of family and morals," including premarital sex and divorce.
"Both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger identified certain elements of Western European culture and American culture that threaten both the Judeo-Christian culture and the culture of life," said Miravalle, who met often with Pope John Paul II on church matters.
Catholics for a Free Choice, which favors liberalizing church abortion policy, in a statement yesterday forecast "continued internal dissension within the church."
Langan said the most resonating message in Ratzinger's election should be felt by nonpracticing and liberal Catholics: "The cardinals are saying that it is up to the people who are alienated from the church to repent and return."
David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said, "[The new pope] is a polarizing figure, but what matters to us ... is not necessarily theology but children's safety. I think we owe it to him and to ourselves to try to remain hopeful and open-minded."
Ratzinger, who was trained as a theologian and taught theology, is far more steeped in the church's history than was PopeJohn Paul II. This could lead to keener understanding of adjusting custom to suit contemporary needs, said J. Patout Burns, a professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University.
"Someone who knows historical tradition in the kind of detail that [Ratzinger] does knows why certain decisions were made long ago," he said. "He can look at this as a pastoral problem: Do we need women deacons now? ... He understands that pastoral decisions are temporally conditioned."
But as with Pope John Paul II, most American Catholics are likely to diverge from the new pope on numerous issues. "In America, he has many avid supporters, but many who are not so keen on the power he has wielded," observes Chester Gillis, theology chairman at Georgetown University. His elevation "is not going to be received unequivocally with great admiration by all American Catholics - no question about that."
It doesn't help that Ratzinger, described as quiet and studious, is not believed as outgoing as his well-traveled predecessor. "He will think it's important to understand positions taken by people," Langer said, "but I think he will be less interested in rubbing shoulders with them."
Wire services contributed to this article.