Speculation abounds on future pope

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Speculation is mounting in Rome with Vatican observers suggesting that many factors will go into the decision of who will be John Paul II's successor.

It has long been considered extremely unlikely that the next pope will be an American. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago declared in 2003 that "to some extent, even the appearance of being in some sense captured by, as we say now, the world's only superpower, would not be helpful to the mission of the church." Some say the choice of a French Pope would also be overly controversial.

The Polish-born Karol Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Though in Catholic tradition, the pope bears the title of Primate of Italy and Archbishop of the Roman Province, or for short, "Bishop of Rome," this does not necessarily mean that he must be Italian, or Roman, as was demonstrated with the election of John Paul. Nonetheless, the rise of a non-Italian pope in 1978 may be followed by a desire to reclaim the chair by Italians.

Italy will be the country with the greatest representation on the conclave, with 20 eligible cardinals. The US trails far behind at 11, and behind them are Spain (6), France (5), and Brazil (4).

Europe forms the largest bloc with 58 papal electors, while Latin America and Africa have 21 and 11 respectively.

John Paul II was a relatively unknown archbishop at the time of his election, indicating that it is not impossible for church leaders not well known throughout the church across the world to be potential recipients of the office.

Many analysts suggest the strong possibility that the cardinals will seek to avoid electing a young pope in the wake of John Paul's 27-year reign. Age has been a factor in the choice of pontiff during the church's history, and may surface again. The New York Times speculates that cardinals may choose a slightly older pope "in order to avoid another long reign," like that of John Paul II. Two well-liked figures, Angelo Scola of Venice, 63, and Christoph Schönborn of Austria, 60, may well be too young to be chosen for the office. Moreover, some feel that an older pope may be selected specifically to serve as a "transitional" figure following the previous lengthy papacy.

Among the most prominent 'papabili,' or likely potentials for the papacy are:

Others include Giovanni Battista Re, 71, president of the Vatican commission for Latin America, and Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 71.

Analysts suggest that among the important issues around which the election of the next pontiff will center are candidates' position on socialism and capitalism, other religions or ecumenism, abortion, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, as well as their degree of progressivism or conservatism and relations with the international community.