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Speculation ranges widely as the College of Cardinals gathers in Rome to choose a new pope

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On the eve of the Vatican conclave that will conclude with the selection of a new pope to replace the late John Paul II, it was anybody's guess who that might be. There are 117 cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote; one of them will get the job. They are forbidden to speculate publicly about their choice. They can't campaign for the post, either, but that won't stop them from quiet maneuvering among themselves to try to get their "God-favored man" chosen.

Speculation ranges widely among Roman Catholic scholars, clergy, lay leaders, and others. Will it be, should it be, someone from Africa or Latin America, where the church has grown spectacularly in recent years, and where issues like poverty, hunger, and disease could command greater attention? Should the Italians get their wish to have the papacy returned to one of their own, someone who will devote more time to internal matters of the Vatican bureaucracy? It won't be one of the 11 Americans (no one outside of America wants a superpower pope), but should it be a European who will open the door to greater collegiality in church control and to moderation in matters of faith and culture in the Western church? American conservatives shudder at the thought.

One of the strongest emerging candidates is Francis Arinze, 72, from Nigeria. He is a staunch and outspoken theological conservative whose humor and openness have made him popular among the Vatican press corps. He has traveled widely and was for 18 years the Vatican's chief liaison with Muslims. It is in Africa and Asia that a huge and sometimes violent struggle between burgeoning Christianity and Islam-including civil war between the faiths in Nigeria-is taking place. This could be a deciding factor for many electors.

Critics, however, consider him a narrow-minded intellectual lightweight, despite his important writings and clarity on religion relationships. He acknowledges: "I'm not a philosopher like the Holy Father. I'm just a rough-and-tumble pastor who teaches what the church teaches."

Cardinal Arinze provoked an uproar among some teachers and students at Georgetown University's commencement in May 2003 when he warned that the family is "under siege" and "mocked by homosexuality." And at a Vatican press event during the U.S. presidential election campaign, he said he agreed with a statement that Catholic politicians who ignore church teachings in their public lives should not participate in Communion.

An African compromise candidate could be Wilfrid Fox Napier, 62, of South Africa. He fought apartheid and remains a strong advocate of "social justice." He is a traditionalist in doctrine.

In Latin America, whose cardinals will make up the second largest bloc at the conclave, Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia is a possibility. He stood up for the poor and against the country's drug warlords. Theologically conservative, he fiercely opposed liberation theology. But he was not as forthright in speaking about the clergy sexual abuse scandal in 2002.

A favorite of liberals is Claudio Hummes, 70, of Brazil. He opposed Brazil's military regime, backed workers' strikes, and allowed a leftist radical to make political speeches during Masses in the church. Under John Paul II, he downplayed (but did not eschew) political action, and he defended Catholic doctrine on sexuality.

Another Latin candidate would be Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiago, 62, of Honduras. An accomplished linguist and leader of Latin American bishops, he is a defender of the poor who believes "social justice" is the answer to many of the problems in Latin America.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 68, of Argentina is a respected intellectual who studied theology in Germany. He was considered a voice of conscience during political and economic upheaval in Argentina. He still has ties to a liberation movement, but has counseled his Jesuit clergy to toe the line doctrinally and spiritually.

Europeans form the largest bloc of cardinals, but the church in Europe is in sharp decline, beset by unbelief, doctrinal tensions, and clergy scandals. Only a few would qualify for consideration.

A favorite of liberals would be Godfried Danneels, 71, of Belgium. An intellectual and gifted preacher, he urged the Vatican to allow women to hold top posts usually held by cardinals. He called for greater collegiality in running the church. He also said condoms could be used in the fight against AIDS. But he didn't hesitate to suspend a defiant homosexual priest.

Conservatives would look with favor on Christoph Schoenborn, 60, of Austria, an esteemed intellectual, philosopher, and theologian known more for his spirituality than his administrative prowess. John Paul II held him in high regard; he was the one most responsible for the new Catholic catechism in 1994 that emphatically restated orthodox Catholic teaching. However, his age might be an impediment; most observers believe the cardinals don't want another pope who could have such a long reign as John Paul II's.

Dionigi Tettamanzi, 71, of Milan, Italy, tops the list of Italian candidates. He has a reputation as an intellectual, educator, theological conservative, and prolific writer who helped Pope John Paul II compose some encyclicals.

A dark horse would be German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a liberal-turned-conservative theologian and the Vatican's chief doctrinal watchdog. At 77, he likely would be considered an "interim pope" whose courageous promotion of orthodox Catholic teaching would keep John Paul II's doctrinal legacy intact. Liberal-leaning Catholics in the West would be dismayed, but his selection could buy time if the electors end up deadlocked.

Edward E. Plowman

Ed (1931–2018) was a WORLD reporter. Read Marvin Olasky's tribute.


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