The first thing you need to know in handicapping the election of the next pope is that anyone who says they know who will be chosen doesn't know what they're talking about. Recent history is littered with tip sheets from august Vaticanologists who in the end couldn't even get their favorites into the Top Ten.The second thing you need to know is that anyone who wants the job doesn't know what they're talking about, either, and they probably won't get it anyway. As one of those old Roman sayings has it, "He who enters the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal." The rest of the cardinals don't like campaigners, and in fact it is not only unseemly, but against canon law to electioneer while the current pope breathes. That puts even more guesswork into the predictions.

The system has been in place, with minor variations, for several centuries: Nine days of mourning and funeral masses follow the pope's death, and he is interred generally on the fourth or fifth day. No sooner than 15 days after the pope's death and no later than 20 days post-mortem (to allow time for far-flung cardinals to arrive) all of the cardinals under 80 years old will convene. The number of cardinal-electors is 117. The cardinals will generally hold two ballots a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon-the burning of the secret ballots creates black smoke when no decision is reached, and the addition of wet straw (or chemicals, in modern times, so that there is no confusion) creates white smoke when one of the cardinals garners two-thirds of the votes, thus putting him over the top.
Modern conclaves generally last no more than a few days, although some believe the college is so polarized that the process could take longer this time. In making their choice, the cardinals believe the Holy Spirit-the grande elettore-leads them. But they also know that choosing a pope is a political process, albeit politics with a difference. In secular elections, political parties tend to start with candidates who can appeal to voters. Only then does the party find policy positions to flesh out their candidate's campaign literature. In other words, you find the person and then you build the platform. Papal politics works in the reverse. The death of a pope and the subsequent conclave is a unique moment for the church and the College of Cardinals-often known as the "Senate of the Church"-to take stock of where Catholicism stands, where it needs to go, and what issues were either overemphasized or overlooked during the previous pontificate. The cardinals will first argue over the platform for the next papacy, then choose among their number a man to fit that platform. The first thing spectators should keep in mind is that there really are no "liberals" in the college, in the sense of men who will upend the church's moral teachings, especially on matters of sexuality. There are, however, many different personalities who will bring different styles of governance to the papacy, and style-in a sense of being more or less tolerant-will be as important as substance to the future Catholic agenda.
So how will the cardinals go about settling on a new pope this time around? There are numerous theories and scenarios, as well as many oft-cited slates of potential candidates, some of which overlap, any of which could work. The prognosticating has been going on for so long, given the pope's slow decline, that author Paul Elie, in an essay in the September 2004 Atlantic Monthly, sought to bring the attention back to the primacy of a cardinal's spiritual life in making him papabile. Rather than his nationality or his politics or his theology, Elie wrote, his fellow cardinals "will ask first of all how authentic the faith of that man of faith is-how high his hopes, how deep his depths." Elie's article was an eloquent rebuke to the seemingly bloodless punditry of Vatican-watchers like the late Peter Hebblethwaite and his current reincarnation, John Allen, the unmatched Rome watcher for the National Catholic Reporter, and to the many articles they have inspired (like this one). Yet as Allen rightly noted in his rejoinder to Elie, "my experience is that when I ask a cardinal, `What are the criteria you will use to pick a candidate?' most don't respond in terms of `how high his hopes, how deep his depths.' It's more common to start with whether or not the next pope should be an Italian, or what kind of background he's had as a diocesan bishop, or what approach he would take to the relationship with Islam." What will be subject to debate are issues relating to where the church needs to go.
Allen has set out a number of criteria, and candidates that could fit those criteria, as well as several "parties" (he uses the word advisedly) that will be competing to see their respective agendas succeed: The Border Patrol of conservatives seeking to enforce adherence to Roman pronouncements on everything, from liturgy to theology; the Reform Party of progressives looking for a loosening of such a top-down management style in which whatever Rome says goes, no matter how small the issue; the Social Justice cohort concerned with poverty and human rights issues; and the "Integralists" who want to promote a more vigorous-some say aggressive-Catholic presence in secular culture and politics. An alternative voice to Allen's is that of papal biographer George Weigel, who believes the conclave may focus on three issues: the virtual collapse of formal Christian practice in Europe, the rise of militant Islam, and the challenges posed by the biotechnology revolution. Weigel predicts the next papacy will further John Paul II's legacy by helping the church to digest his voluminous writings and teachings. Think of Weigel's next pope as John Paul's literary executor. There is, however, another way to view the coming process by which the cardinals will pick the next pope, with each stage leading to a different ending, sort of like those on-line novels and games that allow readers to choose from a menu of options and change the direction of the plot at any given point. Here, then, is a progression of questions that many insiders believe the cardinals will answer as they move towards their final selection: Inward or Outward Bound?