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?
The hallmark of John Paul II`s lengthy papacy was his Olympian record of travels outside Italy-nearly 800,000 miles on more than 100 trips. Given that popes were considered virtual prisoners of the Vatican until the mid-20th century, isolated by both political exigencies and centuries of protocol that weighed them down, John Paul's journeys were astounding. But even as the personal touch made John Paul enormously popular, many church leaders wondered whether he should have spent more time in Rome minding the store. Many bishops feel he gave the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy, too much free rein, and that the church's civil service tried to micromanage the church from the Vatican.
Others feel that John Paul did not take enough care in appointing effective bishops, and that problems such as the clergy sexual abuse scandal-while not his direct responsibility-might have been averted with stricter oversight. They note that for all of his popularity, Catholicism today is more divided than when he was elected, and that vocations to the priesthood have not kept up with the growth in the number of Catholics. As a consequence, many cardinals believe that the next pope needs to focus on building up the church from within rather than making the pope a "rock star" who will provide great headlines but little in terms of concrete reforms.
A Negotiator or a Crusader?
If the cardinals decide they need a stay-at-home pope, the next question is what kind of style will they want from the new pope. Some cardinals will argue that the next pope should be a "progressive" who will allow more innovation on matters such as lay preachers, women deacons, or perhaps optional celibacy for priests. Others say what is needed is the opposite-a strong-willed man who will better enforce orthodoxy-some would call it "Retro Catholicism"-in the ranks. This can be viewed as a choice between someone who is willing to dialogue-to negotiate-with the realities of the modern world and the modern church, and someone who will resist that siren song-a crusader against too much adaptation.
There are those who have signaled a willingness to discuss issues such as mandatory celibacy and a greater role for women. Mentioned most frequently in this category are prelates such as Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, or Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien.
The patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo, is not necessarily a reformer but he is widely admired for his intellect and his interest in re-evangelizing Europe. (His main drawback may be a regular smoking habit.) Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna is seen as someone who would continue in the ways of John Paul II, but his pastoral approach and his experience with restive Catholics in Austria might make him more amenable to innovation, some believe.
On the other side, of course, are what Vaticanista Sandro Magister has called the "Neo-Con" cardinals-men like the Bavarian Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's longtime doctrinal watchdog at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old Holy Office of the Inquisition. Crudely nicknamed the Panzerkardinal, Ratzinger has been alternatively praised and criticized for his tough statements on topics like homosexuality ("objectively disordered") and the validity of other Christian denominations. His one-time lieutenant, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, would be in a similar vein. There are any number of other doctrinal hard-liners, but all of them share the baggage of being too closely associated with the current pontificate, and few have the personality of John Paul that would enable them to promote orthodoxy with such charm.
North or South?
More than two-thirds of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is inevitable that a future pope will hail from the developing world. Such a pope would be considered a powerful and prophetic statement about the church's focus on social justice and human rights, but many would see that selection as effectively writing off northern Christendom-and much of the modern world. (Forget about an American pope. Given the United States' status today as the lone superpower, and with such bad press for America in much of the developing world, one of the dozen or so American cardinals would have no shot.)
Whether the next pope should be from the developing South versus the industrial North is a major question facing the conclave. About 45 percent of the world's Catholics are in Latin America, 26 percent in Europe, 13 percent in Africa and 10 percent in Asia. Yet while the College of Cardinals has continued to "internationalize" under John Paul, the Catholic population figures do not match up with their representation in the college. For example, Latin American cardinals make up less than 20 percent of the college, while Europeans represent nearly half-nearly twice the proportion of the population base.
The pull toward a cardinal from the developing world would be as much about future trends as current numbers.
An African cardinal would follow in the groundbreaking tradition of John Paul II, who was the first non-Italian in more than 450 years to sit on the Throne of St. Peter. More than anywhere else in the world, Africa also seems to be the future of Christianity, and especially of Catholicism: The number of African Catholics has spiked from 7 million in 1914 to 120 million in 2000, and by 2025 it is projected that there will be more Catholics in Africa than in Europe. The African candidate mentioned most frequently is Cardinal Francis Arinze. But while Arinze is a captivating personality who hails from Nigeria, he has spent 20 years in the Curia and is considered more Roman than African. Besides, like many cardinals from the developing world, he is often categorically doctrinal when it comes to issues of sexuality or other contemporary issues, and could easily turn off audiences in Europe and the U.S.
A more likely African candidate might be the South African, Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban.
Even more likely, however, is that the first Southern Hemisphere pope will come from Latin America, which has such close ties to Europe, as well as being home to nearly half the world's Catholics. Popular candidates in this category would be a Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico, and the most widely mentioned, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. But even Maradiaga has made missteps with the media, at one point comparing the clergy sexual abuse coverage to "the times of Nero and Diocletian, and more recently, of Stalin and Hitler."
A pope from the South might be an inspiring choice on many levels, but it is felt that such a pope would not make institutional reform a priority.
Collaboration or Centralization?
Trumping all issues in the next conclave, many believe, will be the debate over the increasing centralization of papal authority. And it is this issue that could shortcut all of the others.
The papacy of John Paul II saw a significant uptick in the trend of concentrating authority at the Holy See and in the Holy Father. This is often seen in juridical terms, with Rome trying to "run" the church as if it is General Motors or Coca-Cola. Enforcing liturgical rules, disciplining theologians or reviewing diocesan finances are among the oft-cited examples of this style. In reality the Roman Catholic Church is the most decentralized global institution one could imagine-given the ratio of curia bureaucrats to Catholics, it is as if the U.S. government tried to operate with 500 employees.
But the papacy has also been centralized by John Paul's enormous charisma. Through his travels and his actor's gift for communicating with large audiences, John Paul-and the papacy-became identified with "the church," a tendency that cardinals on all sides have grown weary of. "The right balance between the universal church and the particular churches has been destroyed. This is not only my own perception; it is the experience and complaint of many bishops from all over the world," Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German, has written. Many hope the next pope will allow each bishop to operate-even experiment-more freely according to what they perceive as their own needs. Some of this is already happening simply because of the exigencies on the ground. The Swiss bishops, for example, recently received an unprecedented exemption from Rome to allow lay preachers under certain circumstances because of the clergy shortage. The American bishops' policies against abusive priests were also unusual, and the U.S. hierarchy had to lobby hard in Rome to get them.
A member of the curia for several years, Kasper is in favor of a more "collegial" approach-that is, one that fosters dialogue and collaboration with Rome, rather than one some see as the Vatican's "command-and-control" style. But others could fit the bill, such as a Franciscan from Brazil, Cardinal Claudio Hummes. Hummes is traditional on doctrinal matters, but also supports greater decentralization in the church.
In the end, the coming conclave is actually less about "identity politics" than one might suspect.
An exception would be the Italians, who are regularly advocating for a "restoration" of the papacy to its "rightful owners." There could be a good argument for the Italian option, in that no one knows the curia better than the Italians, or how to reform it.
Yet even the cardinals could be in for a surprise, despite their own expectations. The thing about a hierarchy is that once you reach the top, you can do as you please-within limits, of course. Popes are hemmed in by tradition and canon law, but they are also freer to act than at any other time in their careers.
Look at John XXIII (1958-1963), who was elected a month shy of his 77th birthday. Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was a lifelong Vatican diplomat and a compromise candidate who was seen as a "transitional" pope who would do little to roil the waters. Soon after his election, however, the congenial Pope John called the Second Vatican Council-"a little holy madness," he called it with his usual humor-that would plunge Catholicism headlong into the modern world.
The irony is that the papal prognosticators might even get it right this time and choose an odds-on favorite who emerges onto the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica. But what he does from there on out is anybody's bet.
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.