Vatican City, April 19 (Reuters): Cardinals today elected conservative German prelate Joseph Ratzinger as the new leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, in a controversial choice to succeed Pope John Paul II.
Ratzinger, 78, the Church's 265th pontiff, will take the name of Benedict XVI. The speed of the election ' on only the second day of a secret cardinals' conclave ' and its result were both a surprise.
Many Vatican experts had said Ratzinger, John Paul's doctrinal watchdog for 23 years, was too divisive and too old to become pope.
They had predicted that though Ratzinger was considered the frontrunner, he would have to cede to a more conciliatory compromise figure during the conclave.
His election indicated both that the cardinals wanted to maintain John Paul's strict church orthodoxy and also to have a short, transitional papacy.
'I was surprised for a couple of reasons. One is his age... the second is that I thought he might have been too much of a polarising person,' said Lawrence Cunningham, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The new Pope appeared on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica soon after his election, smiling broadly and greeting cheering crowds in the square. 'I entrust myself to your prayers,' he said.
Ratzinger's stern leadership of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, delighted conservative Catholics but upset moderates and other Christians whose churches he described as deficient.
As the previous Pope's doctrinal overseer, Ratzinger disciplined Latin American 'liberation theology' theologians, denounced homosexuality and gay marriage and pressured Asian priests who saw non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity.
In a document in 2000, he branded other Christian churches as deficient ' shocking Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestants in ecumenical dialogue with Rome for years.
His choice of name seemed intriguing because the last Pope Benedict, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, subtly repudiated the strict Vatican orthodoxy practised under his predecessor Pius X, said former Vatican diplomat John-Peter Pham.
Benedict XV also tried in vain to end World War I, opened the Vatican to international diplomacy and sent so much wartime aid to Turkey that Istanbul erected a statue to him, he said. 'Benedict was an understated, quiet pontiff.'