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Who will be the next pope?

When John Paul II's long ponficate ends, the next pope may come from the Third World

Picking a pope is a bit like hunting for one's dream house. Buyers start with an ideal: say three bathrooms, hardwood floors, a fireplace, a spacious yard and a great view of the mountains. Then the hard work of looking at what's actually on the market begins, and people have to decide what they can live without in order to make a deal. Similarly, in electing a successor to St. Peter, members of the College of Cardinals, the Catholic Church's most senior leaders, start with an ideal vision of the kind of man needed to lead the church. Usually that vision is constructed on the basis of six criteria.

* Age: Because popes serve until they die, cardinals regulate the length of pontificate by the age of the man they elect. (This doesn't always work, but that's another matter). John Paul II's long reign, 25 years and counting, augurs for an older man. This is complicated, however, by the instinct that the next pope will have to project an energetic image after John Paul's very public decline. Many cardinals say they'd like someone 65 to 75.

* Life Experience: There is a strong bias towards someone from a diocese rather than the Roman Curia, the papal civil service. Given the high degree of centralization under John Paul II, and the resentment that this has produced in some quarters, this instinct is likely to be especially strong.

* Nationality: Some people think the Italians are scheming to recapture their monopoly on the papacy. In fact, there are only 22 Italians out of 134 cardinals presently under 80 and hence eligible to vote. While a few cardinals might prefer an Italian, others want a pope from the Third World. That's where Christianity is growing. Just as John Paul II was able to help heal the East/West split that dominated the planet in 1978, a pope from the Third World could help address today's North/South divide.

* Issues: Candidates must have a compelling vision of the issues facing the Catholic Church, yet be open enough to appeal across "party lines." Many cardinals believe those issues include: how power is distributed inside the Church; ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, especially the relationship with Islam; biotechnology and sexual ethics; globalization and economic justice; and the role of laity, especially women.

* Charisma: A pope must speak several languages, have a grasp of cultural and political trends, be tough enough to lead while still radiating compassion, and come across well on TV. At the same time, some cardinals believe John Paul II has been a tad too charismatic, and say the next pope should not eclipse lower levels of authority.

* Holiness: Being pope is not like being president or prime minister; competence is not enough. A pope must set a moral standard, and must inspire people to seek a deeper relationship with God.

The problem, of course, is that no one person could possibly measure up to all these standards. The College of Cardinals contains a number of men who offer perhaps 85 percent of what electors want. As in home-buying, the question becomes which particular constellation of features the cardinals will decide is "close enough."

As of today, three men appear to be especially compelling papabili, or candidates to be the next pope.

* Claudio Hummes, Brazil, 69: A Franciscan, Hummes is well respected in Rome and was invited to preach the 2002 Lenten Retreat for the papal household. At the same time, he defends the Movimento dos Sem Terra (landless movement), arguing that people should be encouraged to organize themselves to defend their rights. He reminds government leaders that the Church defends private property, but "with social responsibility." Hummes thus could be the right mix between doctrinal caution and social engagement. He also supports decentralization, allowing national bishops' conferences and local churches a greater share in making decisions.

* Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Argentina, 66: A Jesuit, Bergoglio is a soft-spoken intellectual, a man of genuine theological and philosophical depth, who is a conservative on doctrinal and spiritual matters. He emerged as a moral point of reference during Argentina's 2001 crisis; he did not speak out often, but when he did have something to say, it carried weight. If he were to become pope, Bergoglio's simplicity and humility would strike the world. In Argentina, for example, he takes public transportation rather than a chauffer-driven limousine.

* Godfried Danneels, Belgium, 70: A former professor of liturgy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Danneels has a high reputation as both an intellectual and a pastor. Though he has a strong vision, he also has a reputation as someone who listens well and builds consensus. He speaks several languages. As the archbishop of Brussels, he is an effective interlocutor with the new Europe. Some cardinals won't vote for Danneels because they see him as too liberal, others because he represents northern Europe, where the Church is in crisis. Otherwise, however, he's very attractive.

Other papabili include Cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Ivan Dias of India, Walter Kasper of Germany, Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Christoph Schnborn of Austria and Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy.

Americans often ask what impact the Church's sex abuse crisis will have on the election. Directly, very little. While the phenomenon of sexual abuse by priests is universal, the cultural reaction to it has not been as dramatic elsewhere in the Catholic world. (American Catholics are only six percent of the global Catholic population of more than one billion). Indirectly, however, the crisis strengthens the case for a stay-at-home pope. One criticism of John Paul II among cardinals is that his 102 trips outside Italy and his appeal to outside groups -- unbelievers, followers of other religions, other Christians -- have sometimes led to neglect of internal governance, and that the next pope should take ecclesiastical discipline more into his own hands. The American crisis has bolstered that view.

Finally, what about the prospects for an American pope? Virtually nil. This is no reflection on the current batch of American cardinals, but rather a result of America's status as the world's lone superpower. Just as the secretary general of the United Nations could never be an American without attracting conspiracy theories, an American pope would invite speculation that Vatican policy was being crafted by the CIA. Cardinals prize the Vatican's independence too much to allow that to happen.

Of course, anything is possible. Despite much self-assured talk in the media about how popes "stack the deck" to ensure that their successors continue their policies, conclaves always produce surprises. Historians of the papacy call this the pendulum law, meaning that both the style and the content of governance fluctuate from one pontificate to the next. The only constant is change.

The Italians, as they always do, have a better phrase to capture the same idea: You always follow a fat pope with a thin one.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and author of Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election.

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front runners
The next pope will be the 264th successor to St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome.
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