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Roman Catholic Church
at a crossroads

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement Monday that he will resign Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds.

Benedict’s successor will have to contend not only with a Roman Catholic Church marred by the sexual abuse crisis but also with an increasingly secular Europe and the spread of Protestant evangelical movements in the United States, Latin American and Africa.

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocated a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who feel the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like the ordination of women or ending celibacy for priests.

Many Vatican watchers suspect the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict, someone who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies, particularly to the young people of Europe, for whom the church is now largely irrelevant, and to Latin America and Africa, where evangelical movements are fast encroaching.

Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo,
The New York Times

Obama to renew drive for cuts in nuclear arms

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to reinvigorate one of his signature national security objectives — drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world — after securing agreement in recent months with the United States military that the U.S. nuclear force can be cut in size by roughly a third.

Obama, administration officials say, is unlikely to discuss specific numbers in the address, but White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. Currently there are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018.

But Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”

The big question is how to accomplish a reduction that Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called New START. The White House is loath to negotiate an entirely new treaty with Russia. Instead, Obama is weighing whether to announce unilateral cuts or, more likely, to attempt to reach an informal agreement with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for mutual cuts within the framework of the New START — but without the need for ratification.

—David E. Sanger, The New York Times

Airline industry safer than ever

Flying on a commercial jetliner has never been safer.

It will be four years Tuesday since the most recent fatal crash in the United States, a record unmatched since propeller planes gave way to the jet age more than half a century ago. Worldwide, last year was the safest since 1945, with 23 deadly accidents and 475 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an accident researcher. That was fewer than half the 1,147 deaths, in 42 crashes, in 2000.

—Jad Mouawad and Christopher Drew, The New York Times