The blogosphere quickly erupted over yesterday's news that the Vatican had tapped conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to be the next shepherd of the global Catholic flock.

While right-wingers like those at The Corner started popping the champagne, progressives have been largely outraged, noting Ratzinger's hardline stances on abortion and gays, his crackdown on liberal dissidents and liberation theologins, his failure to act on priest child abuse, and his overall orthodox views on the church and its role in the world. (There was also his little intervention in the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, when he instructed Catholic voters that they "would be guilty of formal cooperation with evil" if they voted for a pro-choice candidate.)

My take, as someone raised into left-leaning Catholicism (and schooled by some very subversive nuns), is roughly similar to a BBC analysis I heard last night: Ratzinger largely represents continuity with the previous pontiff, not a radical departure to be celebrated or dreaded. For those who think the church hasn't lived up to its potential, Salon's headline today seems to get it about right: "The Church Will Continue to Suffer."

But just like John Paul II, Ratzinger will also provide openings. He shared the former Pope's disdain for pre-emptive war, speaking out clearly against the Iraq invasion. Our friend Nathan Newman also notes that even Ratzinger's opposition to liberation theology didn't put him on the side of corporate greed, at least in the realm of doctrine. In his major statement on the "lib theo" trend, he went out of his way to say:

The warning against the serious deviations of some "theologies of liberation" must not be taken as some kind of approval, even indirect, of those who keep the poor in misery, who profit from that misery, who notice it while doing nothing about it, or who remain indifferent to it. The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by the love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might.

How will this play out in the South? It's a little-known fact that Catholicism is one of the fastest-growing religions (if not the fastest) in the U.S. South, and the Pope's direction of the church could have a major impact on Southern politics.

Clifford Grammich of the Glenmary Research Center has the numbers:
The American Catholic Church has seen a considerable shift from the Northeast and North Central states toward the South and West. In 1971, the West and South were home to 29 percent of American Catholics; today, more than 43 percent are in these two regions. In 1971, the South had 6.5 million Catholics; in 2000, this number had grown 89 percent to 12.3 million. By contrast, the total population of the South grew from an estimated 64.5 million in 1971 to 100.2 million in 2000, or 55 percent. The more rapid increase in Southern Catholic numbers means Southern Catholics have increased from 10.1 percent of the total population in 1971 to 12.3 percent in 2000.
Southern Baptists still rule, but their growth rate is smaller. One out of eight Southerners now identify as Catholic.

What's driving the increase? Latino immigration and an influx of retirees and young professionals from elsewhere in the U.S. have been the biggest factors. In turn, the churches these newcomers helped build have attracted home-grown converts.

But in terms of the politics of Southern Catholics, the influence appears to be the other way around. As journalist Tim Padget reports,
[T]hese southern Catholics, "influenced in no small degree by their morally hard-line Protestant neighbors, as well as the strong piety of Latin America," are practicing a more conservative faith than Catholics in many other parts of the U.S. Fr. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, told Padgett that the Protestant influence has also led to something he calls "evangelical Catholicism."
Conservatives see much opportunity in these developments, as U.S. Catholicism gravitates towards "red states," adapting to their conservative climate and emphasizing the right-leaning currents of the faith.

Yet Southern Catholics must still grapple with the church's forceful teachings on war, the death penalty (still popular in the South), and economic justice (including the right to join unions -- not popular in the South, at least among the elite).

Pope Benedict XVI has great potential to determine how the rising tide of Catholicism will affect the Southern political landscape. The course he sets for Catholics will help determine whether the church grows as a conservative or progressive force in the region.