I have not mentioned the Pope on this blog yet. What will the election of Ratzinger mean for the future? I don't know - nobody really does - but here are some thoughts.
If it is true that there are 1 billion Catholics on this planet, that makes it about a 6th or 7th of the world's population. This makes the Vatican the largest existing purveyor of myth, irrationality and superstiton. The thought of the Cardinals who voted for Ratz was that he would be able to expand the reach of the Catholic church around the world. But will he? After all, he is more irrational and superstitious than most of his flock, let alone the rest of humanity.
If you think of the Catholic population in terms of demographics, the net growth is dependent on births, deaths, emigration and immigration. Currently, the Catholic church is experiencing a net loss in the Northern Hemisphere (e.g., Europe and North America) and net growth in the Southern hemisphere (e.g., Africa, Latin America, Southeastern Asia). Is that going to change with the new Pope?
Judging from Ratz's statements over the past couple of decades, including his statements of the past few days, he is trying to convert everyone into Catholicism: my way or highway. He is so sure in his belief that he thinks that, if he just shouts His Truth louder, everybody is going to see The Truth and join in. I think he is in for a big surprise.
His social conservatism will further alienate Northern Hemisphere population. As a result, there will be more deaths of old Catholics than births of baby Catholics, but that is not different from the current situation. The emigration (leaving the church) may be very small, but may get slightly larger due to his iron-fisted rule. The immigration (joining the church), on the other hand, will greatly decrease, as people will be unlikely to find his message to be coincident with their own core beliefs and morals. Thus, the net loss in the North will get bigger than it is now.
In the Southern Hemisphere, his economic conservatism will also alienate people. The death-to-birth ratio may not get altered substantially, and the emigration (leaving the church) may not significantly rise, but the immigration (joining the church) is likely to slow down. Social and economic justice are important for these populations and Ratz's stataments will make them think twice before joining. Thus, the net growth will slow down, perhaps stagnate, maybe even reverse.
As a result, the Catholic Church will either grow slower than today, or even start shrinking in global numbers. And that is if the local bishops and priests say and do nothing but follow the orders from the Vatican. But what if they do not? What if local priests push their own, more modern line? That kind of behavior would have two different results: first, to make Catholicism more appealing to the local population, and second, to provoke disagreement and tension within the church. Will that lead to the schism? Would American Catholics split off? If so, would European and/or Latin Americans join with the Americans or remain with the Vatican? Would the offical split bring more people into catholicism (as the liberal version attracts new converts), or would the nasty in-fighting further alienate potential converts?
Whatever happens, the attractiveness and influence of the Catholic Church will decline in the nearest future. If that is correct, I am worried that it is not healthy skeptical atheism that will be the most attractive alternative option to the people who would have, otherwise, joined the Catholic Church. I am afraid that the aggressively proselytizing evangelical Protestant churches will take over - they'll smell the blood and move in for the kill. I am sure that Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity (and various New Age cults, e.g., Scientology, Raelians) would also smell the troubles of the Vatican and renew their efforts to convert new people. If I had to choose between influence of the Ratz-style Catholicism and fundie Protestantism, I would always choose Catholics - a bit less crazy, irrational and superstitious lot as a whole.
So, the new Pope worries me not because he will make Catholics less modern, but because he will make even more regressive religions more attractive and influential - a net loss for the Enlightment.