On Tuesday, 115 old men elected one from their midst to be the leader of the world's biggest religion. The new pope will lead an amazing organisation: it is not only the world's largest, with over a billion members worldwide, but also its oldest, with an uninterrupted history dating back almost 2,000 years. Growing to such a large size and surviving for such a long time are remarkable feats. How was they accomplished?
In essence, what the catholic church has managed to do is strike the right balance between flexibility and rigidity. It has adapted -- not always smoothly, of course -- to changing environmental pressures while maintaining an ideological and cultural core that has changed only very slightly over the millenia. Benedict XVI's task will be to continue maintaining the balance as best he can.
What are the main goals of the catholic church as an organisation? Contrary to what some critics may believe, maximising profits is not one of them. Instead, the church aims to maximise its membership without essentially diluting or changing its core values. In some areas of the world -- notably Europe, and to a lesser degree the USA -- there's a conflict between the two main goals. If the church refuses to modify its position on issues such as lay participation, women's rights, and sexual self-determination, it will unavoidably lose even more members. If it adapts in response to demands from members in the first world countries, it runs the risk of losing authority and identity -- which could lead to a further loss of membership.
Cardinal Ratzinger's position in this goal conflict has always been clear: he prefers a smaller, purer church to a more inclusive, but diluted one. Though I do not agree with many of the church's positions, I believe this to be a strategically sound decision. The church's greatest asset is its authority (and not its real estate, art collection, antiquities, company investments or stocks of precious metals and gemstones). This is the one asset which it must protect above all others -- even at the risk of alienating some members. And the way to protect its position of authority is to change very little, if at all; and never overtly in response to outside pressures, but only in accordance with its history and the evolving consensus of its leaders.