Who will be the next pope?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 1 2005 6:00 PM

Papal Chase

Will the next pope be black, Hispanic, American, a Jew?

Editor's note: This article originally ran in 2003, when Pope John Paul II was experiencing a serious enough illness to make people begin to speculate about who might be his successor. This article has been slightly modified and updated.

So, who will the next pope be—a black, a Hispanic, an American, or a Jew?

No, it's not a joke. All four are real possibilities.

The biggest differences between the papal selection process now and the last time are demographic ones. Of the five countries with the biggest Catholic populations, only one (Italy) is European. Forty-six percent of the world's Catholics are in Latin America; there are more Catholics in the Philippines than in Italy. In 1955 there were 16 million Catholics in all of Africa; today there are 120 million.

The cardinals who will be electing the next pope are a conservative group. All but five of the 117 * voting cardinals (aka "cardinal electors") were appointed by Pope John Paul II, and most share his views. So, we probably won't see a flaming lefty as the next pontiff. Likely factors the cardinals will consider when voting: Do they pick a Third Worlder to reflect demographics or someone to shore up Old Europe Christendom? Do they want a young (well, under 70), telegenic man to explain Catholicism to the world? Or an older fellow who won't stick around for quite so long?

John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, cites an old Italian saying, "Always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope." But if there's a backlash, many analysts believe it will likely be against this pope's penchant for centralizing authority, not against his ideology.

The most frequently mentioned papabili among the pope-watching cognoscenti are:

Francis Arinze
Country: Nigeria
Age: 72
Assets: Black! Third Worlder. Can go nose-to-nose with Islam.
Liabilities: Black? Maybe too conservative. African Catholic Church too young.

If chosen, Arinze, besides rocking the world as the first black pope, would also be a good pope to have in charge in a time of religious conflict. The former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze is Mr. Interfaith and helped arrange Pope John Paul II's first-ever visit to a mosque. "Theologically, all people come from the same God," he has said.

Deborah Caldwell, senior religion editor of Beliefnet, says of the electors, "They have to go with a Third World cardinal because of the shift of Christianity's vast numbers to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They just HAVE to," she says. "And if you add in the global clash between Islam and Christianity, the clear choice is Arinze."

Ah, but what an exquisite dilemma for liberals. A black pope who, on social issues, makes Phyllis Schlafly seem like Jane Fonda. In a commencement address this year at Georgetown University, Arinze drew protests by saying the institution of marriage is "mocked by homosexuality." If he did become pope and liberals criticized his antigay, anti-abortion views, could conservatives possibly resist the temptation to charge racism? Might be too much to ask.

It's also possible that, deep down, though they wouldn't admit as much publicly, cardinals might fear that the selection of a black pope would alienate some white Catholics. But the biggest strike against him is that the African church, while growing rapidly, is still too young, especially compared to the church in Latin America.

Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga
Country: Honduras
Age: 62
Assets: Latin American. Friend of Bono.
Liabilities: Compared media to Hitler. Too young.

"There's a feeling that it's Latin America's turn," says Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. It's not just that there are more Catholics there than any other continent—it's a competitive battleground, with Pentecostals chipping away at Catholic market share.

So far, there's no consensus on a Latin American candidate, but the one most often mentioned is Rodriguez, formerly head of the Latin American Bishops group. He's been a strong opponent of Third World debt and an advocate for the church's antipoverty mission. He teamed up with U2's Bono to present a petition at the G-8 meeting in 1999, signed by 17 million people, asking for debt relief.

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church (and also of a forthcoming book on the papal election), describes Rodriguez's assets: "A ployglot, media-savvy Latin American who knows everyone in the College and would represent a powerful statement on behalf of the huge and poverty-stricken Latin American church, as well as the rest of the developing world." John Allen adds that Rodriguez is also a supporter of decentralization, which may be the most important factor of all.

One problem may be his comments that press coverage of the pedophile-priest scandal reflects anti-Catholic views of Ted Turner and other media moguls. "Only in this fashion can I explain the ferocity [in the press] that reminds me of the times of Nero and Diocletian, and more recently, of Stalin and Hitler," he said.

Jean-Marie Lustiger
Country: France (Archbishop of Paris)
Age: 79
Assets: Jewish? Shore up Old Europe Christendom.
Liabilities: Jewish! Too old.

Lustiger's mother, a Jew, was killed at Auschwitz. If the cardinals wanted to generate excitement in Europe, choosing Lustiger sure would be a dramatic way to do it.

Do Jews consider him Jewish? Technically, yes. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literacy, said, "According to Jewish law, a person born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, and being Jewish is not something a person can renounce. However … the Jewish community does not normally relate to such a person as a Jew."

Lustiger is, Telushkin says, popular with Parisian Jews, but other pundits feel that many Jews would be outraged if he were chosen. "Electing him would be a disaster for Catholic-Jewish relations," says Reese. "Some Jews would see this as the church putting him up as an example of what Jews should do."

What probably really rules him out now is his age. Since the mandatory retirement age for cardinals is 75, it might be a bit awkward moral-authority-wise for the pope to bust the cap. So, we probably will never get to find out whether Jewish mothers around the world would have told their children that some day they could grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a pope.

Lubomyr Husar
Country: Ukraine
Age: 72
Assets: Extra holy. Good age. Bridges East and West.
Liabilities: He's American!

Husar is the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and has American citizenship. His parents emigrated to the United States, where he attended the Catholic University of America, was ordained a priest in Stamford, Conn., and taught at St. Basil's College Seminary from 1958 to 1969.

John Allen, who touts him as a dark horse, summarizes the plusses and minuses thusly:

There are three objections to Husar's candidacy. First, he represents Eastern Europe, and after John Paul many believe that region of the world will have to wait a few generations to produce another pope. Second, he is an American citizen, and observers believe it would be diplomatically impossible to elect a superpower pontiff. Some would suspect Vatican policy was being crafted by the CIA. Third, the pope is supposed to be the patriarch of the West, and it would be theologically odd for that office to be held by someone from an Eastern rite.

But, Allen argues, these objections could become positives. "The first two point to Husar as a bridge between East and West; the third suggests he could be a symbol of the full catholicity of the church, of its unity in diversity."

Finally, Allen says, "He is also one of the most genuinely Christian men I've ever met."

Dionigi Tettamanzi
Country: Italy
Age: 71
Assets: Italian.
Liabilities: Italian.

Only 5 percent of the world's Catholics live in Italy. So, why is an Italian even on the list? Because 35 percent of the voting cardinals either represent an Italian diocese or work for the Vatican administration. There may also be a sense that the church went through its wacky experimental phase by choosing a Polish pope and needs to get back to normal.

Tettamanzi is conservative and well-liked by the very conservative Opus Dei movement; most of the voting cardinals are conservative, too.

Most important, the leading Irish gambling Web site, Paddypower.com, rates him as the odds-on favorite.

Christoph Schönborn
Country: Austria
Age: 60
Assets: Intellectual heavyweight. European Christianity could use some excitement.
Liabilities: Europe had its chance.

This cardinal is also a count! A respected theologian, Schönborn was chosen by Pope John Paul II to serve as the general editor of the revised Catholic catechism. David Gibson calls Schönborn "a cultured Austrian who is conservative but, true to his Mittleeuropean roots, can be a bridge between East and West. Maybe a little too close to a Slavic pope, and maybe a little too young still."

His big problem is his age.

Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino
Country: Cuba
Age: 68
Assets: Communist country. Hispanic.
Liabilities: Communism no longer a problem.

Picking a pope from a Communist country worked well last time, so why not try again? Alamino has the advantages of being a bastion of faith in a godless land and being Hispanic.

Godfried Danneels
Country: Belgium
Age: 72
Assets: Witty.
Liabilities: Too liberal.

On the off chance that the cardinals want to go with a liberal, Danneels may be the man. "When the bishops and cardinals gather, Danneels is often the center of attention, appreciated for his wit and intellect," says Greg Tobin, author of Selecting the Pope. Weaknesses: As a liberal from Belgium, he might be viewed as the Michael Dukakis of the papal race.

Bear in mind, the cardinals traditionally abjure front-runners even more than Democratic Party primary voters do, so there's a good chance it won't be any of the above. An old Italian saying goes, "He who enters the conclave a pope comes out a Cardinal."

And there is, finally, what might be called "The God Factor." Though it's tempting (and fun) to view the papal selection like the Iowa caucuses—all about voting blocks, spin, and positioning—this is still, on some level, a highly personal and spiritual decision. There may be a cardinal who is all wrong for the political reasons listed above but who's viewed by his peers as a truly holy individual. Many people believe the Holy Spirit will be guiding the cardinals' deliberations, and God may have his own views on this, Paddypower.com notwithstanding.

Clarification, April 4: When we republished this article on April 1, two years after it originally was written, we neglected to research whether the number of cardinals involved in the election process might have changed. It had. In 2003, the number was evidently 134; at this point, roughly 117 cardinals will be eligible to vote. Return to the sentence.

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