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Papal politics

''WHO'LL BE the new pope?" This question is not half so exciting as ''What will happen as they choose the pope?"

History teaches us to expect the unexpected, and the coming conclave offers an extraordinary mixture of old precedent and new paradox. For centuries, the man elected pope has surprised the public and often the cardinals themselves. Of 11 popes since 1830, only two were obvious favorites, Pius XII (1939) and Paul VI (1963). Highly favored cardinals usually generate enough opposition so that conclaves settle on lesser-known candidates, as happened with John XXIII in 1958 and John Paul II in 1978.

Another precedent has stood the test of time. Cardinals almost always elect someone who seemingly guarantees that the Vatican bureaucracy will remain intact. The Curia can strategically exclude candidates who threaten it. Even popes who shook up the Vatican, like Pius X and John XXIII, did so by surprise.

The Curia might deploy a strategy I call ''the cosmetic candidate." Historically, when officialdom wanted to maintain the status quo, it found a pope strong on personality but weak in hands-on leadership -- an appealing image who left business as usual. This formula helped elect John Paul I in 1978 and might help Nigeria's Cardinal Arinze now.

Three new paradoxes make the current situation unusual. First, the cardinals are both older and newer: older because their median age is 71; newer because half of them have been cardinals for two to four years. Second, they are more diverse yet more uniform: diverse because no conclave has drawn members from so many nations, 53 in all. Yet their diversity seems superficial: Rarely have cardinals seemed so uniform in viewpoint. Differences among them are fewer than in any conclave in modern history. John Paul II, like the Eastern European governments he once opposed, demanded ideological conformity. The cardinals are the poorer for that narrowness.

This reveals the third paradox. The term ''church of silence" once meant the church behind the Iron Curtain. John Paul II created a new ''church of silence": the bishops, theologians, and Catholics he discredited for disagreeing with his views. They sought dialogue before more dogma, discussion before decision. He silenced them vigorously. In earlier conclaves, cardinals created by earlier popes guaranteed some diversity. That died long before John Paul did.

We may not know what these cardinals are thinking -- but we do know what priorities they are thinking about. First, they cannot sacrifice the momentum generated by John Paul's personal magnetism. Charismatic style weighs more heavily than ever. Low-key administrators need not apply, no matter how competent or devout. Second, the papacy has grown too big. Even John Paul couldn't fill all its demands. Only the decorum of mourning has kept people from saying or noticing this. The cardinals must calculate a trade-off: Which issues must the new pope handle directly? Which can he delegate?

Third, two legacies will doubtless mark John Paul's successor: rigor in doctrine and demands for social justice. Liberals can expect continued frustration around issues of sexuality, bioethics, and roles for women in ministry. Conservatives can await further aggravation over rights for the poor and migrants, duties of richer nations toward emerging ones, the evils of free-market economies, consumerism, and the death penalty.

Fourth, despite John Paul's popularity, he inspired limited conviction in his views. A crisis looms in leadership. Church administration has shifted into ''slow mo," with the twin problems of dramatically shrinking numbers of priests and meddling micromanagement by Vatican bureaucrats, problems John Paul refused to confront.

The church's resources are overstretched as secularism accelerates in Europe and Protestant evangelicalism sweeps South America. Dialogue with Islam is imperative, yet few cardinals are equipped for it. The church must harbor its political influence, since few governments promote the church's unified agenda on peace, human rights, global economy, and sexual ethics. Cardinals may prefer a pope with political clout at least in his own corner of the world.

These precedents, paradoxes, and priorities make this conclave as hard to predict as the one that produced John Paul II. One ''formula" suggests a 70ish, magnetic personality, experienced in Vatican offices and pastoral settings, with political influence at home base. Attention falls repeatedly on outspoken Latin American cardinals skilled in church and secular politics.

Wise observers resist temptations to name names. Rule No. 1: expect the unexpected. Wait for white smoke.

The Rev. James M. Weiss is associate professor of church history and director of the Senior Capstone Seminar Program at Boston College.

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