Adapted from an essay that first appeared in Slate.

So, who will the next pope be-a black, a Hispanic, an American, or a Jew?

No, it's not a joke. All four are real possibilities. The biggest differences between the papal selection process now and 27 years ago are demographic. Of the five countries with the biggest Catholic populations, only one (Italy) is European. Forty-six percent of the world's Catholics are in Latin America; there are more Catholics in the Philippines than in Italy. In 1955 there were 16 million Catholics in all of Africa; today there are 120 million.

The cardinals who will be electing the next pope are a conservative group. All but five of the 119 voting cardinals (aka "cardinal electors") were appointed by Pope John Paul II, and most share his views. So, we probably won't see a flaming lefty as the next pontiff. Likely factors the cardinals will consider when voting: Do they pick a Third Worlder to reflect demographics or someone to shore up Old Europe Christendom? Do they want a young (well, under 70), telegenic man to explain Catholicism to the world? Or an older fellow who won't stick around for quite so long?

John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, cites an old Italian saying, "Always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope." But if there's a backlash, many analysts believe it will likely be against this pope's penchant for centralizing authority, not against his ideology.

The most frequently mentioned papabili among the pope-watching cognoscenti are:

Francis Arinze
Country: Nigeria
Age: 72
Assets: Black! Third Worlder. Can go nose to nose with Islam.
Liabilities: Black? Maybe too conservative. African Catholic Church too young.

If chosen, Arinze, besides rocking the world as the first black pope, would also be a good pope to have in charge in a time of religious conflict. The former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze is Mr. Interfaith and helped arrange Pope John Paul II's first-ever visit to a mosque. "Theologically, all people come from the same God," he has said.

Deborah Caldwell, senior religion editor of Beliefnet, says of the electors, "They have to go with a Third World cardinal because of the shift of Christianity's vast numbers to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They just HAVE to," she says. "And if you add in the global clash between Islam and Christianity, the clear choice is Arinze."

Ah, but what an exquisite dilemma for liberals. A black pope who, on social issues, makes Phyllis Schlafly seem like Jane Fonda. In a commencement address this year at Georgetown University, Arinze drew protests by saying the institution of marriage is "mocked by homosexuality." If he did become pope and liberals criticized his antigay, anti-abortion views, could conservatives possibly resist the temptation to charge racism? Might be too much to ask.

It's also possible that, deep down, though they wouldn't admit as much publicly, cardinals might fear that the selection of a black pope would alienate some white Catholics. But the biggest strike against him is that the African church, while growing rapidly, is still too young, especially compared to the church in Latin America.

Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga
Country: Honduras
Age: 62
Assets: Latin American. Friend of Bono.
Liabilities: Compared media to Hitler. Too young.

"There's a feeling that it's Latin America's turn," says Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. It's not just that there are more Catholics there than any other continent-it's a competitive battleground, with Pentecostals chipping away at Catholic market share.

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