Lifestyle & Belief

Predicting the next pope


Pope Benedict XVI (R) is greeted by the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola during a meeting with pilgrims in front of Milan's cathedral, the Duomo, on June 1, 2012. Scola is widely seen as one of the top contenders to succeed Benedict.


Olivier Morin

Pope Benedict's resignation has galvanized interest in cardinals who until now have been distant figures to most Catholics, and some of the leading candidates are being analyzed by the world’s media and Vatican watchers as potential popes.

Or, as they have come to be known in Italian, papabile.

And we want to offer some observations on five of the more papabile Cardinals from different corners of the world.

But first, you need to know how they get elected. The process begins with a highly secretive and complex gathering called a conclave that will bring cardinals from around the world to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel next month to elect a successor.

That is expected to begin at some point after the pope’s official resignation takes effect on Feb. 28 and Vatican observers believe it is quite possible that a pope will be elected before Easter Sunday, March 30. Balancing the issues of a global church, while steering a course of reconciliation to broaden "the big tent" of Catholicism, will be a major task of the next pope and one certainly on the minds of the cardinals who will elect him.

The Catholic Church in Western countries is deeply polarized with declining Mass attendance and alienation by many over the priest sex abuse scandals and in particular by women over a male-dominated culture that insists on having men only as priests. This, while there is a dramatic shortage of priests, many of whom are aging and in need of care.

The declining and aging priest population combined with the litigation over sexual abuse — along with demographic changes that have seen ethnic Catholics leave urban cores — have altogether caused a huge financial drain, particularly on American dioceses. The Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago archdioceses, to cite three examples, each have an average $95 million shortfall in clergy pension funds amid rising needs for elder care.

In contrast, seminaries across sub-Saharan Africa are filled with young men and religious communities of women drawing greater numbers of future nuns.

Amid all the bleak news and the political posturing to come, it is almost impossible to say who will be the next pope. But a few important, leading candidates for the papacy, in no particular order, are:

1) Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, is viewed by many journalists as the leading Italian candidate. A scholarly figure with fluency in English and several languages, the archbishop of Milan is part of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic movement of moderate conservatism with influence in Italian politics. Scola's interest in bioethics and upholding traditional moral teachings does not suggest a prelate like Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, who was primate of Venice and elected pope in 1959. As Pope John XXIII, he called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which began a course of modernization that the last two papacies have tried to reverse. 

Although Scola has the personable traits and language skills to serve well as a pope in the media age, his deep intellectual interests suggest a man who, in the eyes of other cardinals, may be too cerebral, given to resemble the academic obsessions of Joseph Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI.

2) Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of the Philippines was invested with the red hat this past November, and will be the youngest of the papabile.

Age will be a great issue on the minds of the cardinal-electors. John Paul II was 57 when he was elected in 1978; the early years of his quarter-century pontificate with the image of a charismatic, hale and youthful pontiff, had a galvanizing effect on Catholics as he became the pilgrim pope, traveling to far corners of the world.

That image will surely be associated with Tagle, who wiped tears from his eyes as he received the red biretta and gold ring from Pope Benedict in the ceremony at St. Peter's Basilica. Later, at a reception in the Apostolic Palace, he stood beneath white lights as photographers hovered and a stream of Filipino friends and supporters offered congratulations, many showing the ancient custom of kissing the ring of a Prince of the Church.

Just a year ago, Tagle called on the church to be more vigilant in the abuse crisis and for bishops to report perpetrators to law enforcement — a position that is hardly popular among many bishops, particularly in developing countries, as they watch the fall from grace of cardinals like Roger Mahony in Los Angeles, now the subject of a renewed investigation by the District Attorney since the release of voluminous personnel documents on clergy sex offenders.

Although Tagle’s youth, eloquence and common touch as a pastor would be great assets for a telegenic pope, the College of Cardinals is a culture of deep conservatism with an exalted sense of their own importance.

John Paul II was well-known among his electors from his years as cardinal of Krakow. Tagle would have to demonstrate a compelling vision of where he thinks the church should go in the cloistered sessions of a conclave to draw a bloc of substantial support. Just where he would take the church is sure to be the subject of interviews that he gives in the coming days, unless he decides to keep a low profile, which would be a statement of disinterest.

3) Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, of Quebec has been head of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops in recent years, a sturdy traditional base for gaining influence among the three-score bishops made into cardinals by Benedict. Ouellet has a champion in the influential journalist Sandro Magister of L'espresso whose widely read blog, Chiesa, all but anointed Ouellet as the next pope several months ago. Deeply conservative, Ouellet has said being pope would "be a nightmare," which suggests he may not want the job. 

4) Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, 64, of Ghana is arguably the leading candidate from Africa, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. He has a historic interest in ecumenical, or inter-faith dialogue, and has championed "inculturation" — the absorbing of African rhythms for liturgical celebrations and the syncretic way tribal peoples, as in the Caribbean, have melded cultural stylizations into the ritual of the Mass.

The election of Turkson would signal a dramatic move by the cardinals in the conclave, investing a comparatively young cardinal with the powers of the supreme pontiff, and turning the church in a dramatic swing to the black nations of the world, where the Catholic population is surging.

But with so much of the Holy See's financial support coming from the national churches of the United States, Great Britain and Germany, the election of an African pope might be taken in the more affluent, conservative precincts of Catholicism as a shift toward a more liberal church, or at least a Vatican poised to renew "the preferential option for the poor," as Latin American cardinals and bishops defined their agenda at a historic conference in Medellin, Columbia, in 1968.

Forty-five years after Medellin, John Paul and Ratzinger have appointed a long line of cardinals most of whom are known for bedrock orthodoxy and little introspection, at least in the public sense, of what to do about the deepening polarization in the church in Western countries. A black pope would be a stirring shift in the mind of the hierarchy; though what kind of agenda Cardinal Turkson, as pontiff, would envision is at this point something of a mystery. As a Vatican insider, however, he does have an advantage.

5) Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 62, of New York is the leading American candidate and has more detrimental baggage, from what is known at this point, than leading cardinals from Europe and the Third World.  Although Dolan speaks Italian and has many ties in the Roman Curia from his years as rector of the North American College, the seminary that serves US dioceses, his years as archbishop of Milwaukee will not help.

Dolan approved a $55 million transfer of funds from the archdiocese to the archdiocesan cemetery funds to shield those assets from the burgeoning clergy sex abuse cases several years ago. The archdiocese has been in grinding litigation the last two years since filing for Chapter 11 relief under bankruptcy law in trying to bargain down mass victim settlements. The court has ruled that the $55 million belong in the asset base for creditors, the class that includes abuse survivors who have pending suits.

Although Dolan cuts an affable figure in television interviews, as in personal encounters, many cardinals view the clergy abuse crisis that engulfed the Vatican in the twilight of Benedict's papacy as a scandal ignited in America. To elevate an American to the throne of St. Peter for the first time would be even more unlikely now.