Holy Roman umpire

November 21, 1997

John Paul II's papacy appears to be drawing to a close. Will he be succeeded by another conservative or a liberal or a non-European now that his church is increasingly that of the poor and the Third World? Eamon Duffy considers the frontrunners

The reign of the 261st successor of St Peter appears to be nearing its end. Pope John Paul II's visible enfeeblement becomes more excruciating with every public engagement. Vatican denials that anything is amiss have become more and more cursory and, with an openness that verges on indecency, the world's newspapers and TV networks are preparing their obituary coverage. Karol Wojtyla brought to humankind's most ancient office an athlete's stamina as well as an actor's charisma, but 20 years of exhausting pastoral globetrotting, an assassin's bullet and a string of major operations seem at last to be taking their toll. His Polish imagination feeds on symbols and dwells a good deal on the approaching millennium. He set some store on the prophecy of the veteran Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski that he is the pope called by God to lead the church into it. But when, during his visit to a world youth rally in Paris earlier this year, the crowd shouted "see you in Rome in 2000", he is said to have muttered ruefully "Chi vivra, vedra" - roughly, "wait and see".

With the possible exception of the president of the United States, the pope is the most influential human being on the planet. One-fifth of the world's population are Roman Catholics, and 160 nations think it worth having diplomatic representation at the Vatican. He is ruler of a comic opera state one eighth the size of Central Park, but he is nevertheless a major player on the world stage. Whoever succeeds John Paul II will preside over a church within which most of the third millennium's problems, and some of its opportunities, will be focused. He must decide whether to continue the centralisation of authority within the church that has been so strong a feature of the reign of John Paul II, or to halt it in the interests of the empowerment of the local churches and of collegial co-responsibility with his fellow bishops. He must confront some familiar western dilemmas, notably those posed by religious pluralism, sexual liberation and gender politics - heterodoxy, the pill, the ordination of women. He will have to address the runaway de-Christianisation that is now affecting even former Catholic strongholds such as Ireland. But as leader of a church based predominantly among the poor of the Third World, he may rate all these as less urgent than the chronic maldistribution of the world's resources and the growing burden of Third World debt. Holding in one communion the rich and the poor may prove more challenging than holding together religious conservatives and radicals.

New popes are elected by and from the College of Cardinals. Appointed directly by the pope, cardinals consist of a mixture of the leaders of the local episcopal conferences of the Catholic Church, like Cardinal Hume for England and Wales or Cardinal Winning for Scotland, and the heads or "prefects" of the Vatican congregations, the central administration of the church. There are just over 150 of them, but cardinals lose their votes at the age of 80, so the 40 octogenarians in the present college will attend the Conclave (the word means "with a key", and derives from the medieval practice of locking up the cardinals on short rations until they produced a pope) but will not enter the Sistine Chapel to vote.

There is a saying in Rome - "fat pope, thin pope", meaning that a new pope is often a deliberate contrast with his predecessor. After so long and masterful a pontificate as John Paul II's, that is likely enough. But the choice will be more than usually difficult. Most of the popes of the last 100 years have been elected in their mid-sixties, giving the reasonable expectation of a vigorous ten years of activity, followed by a not-too-protracted decline. At 58, Wojtyla himself was the youngest pope for 130 years. But the College of Cardinals is an elderly body. The youngest cardinal, Vinko Puljic, archbishop of Sarajevo, is 52, but only 33 of of his colleagues are under 70, and obvious papabile are hard to discern. Paul VI's cardinals, who included some of the most imaginative and open-minded Catholic leaders of the century, are now an ageing minority, only 18 of whom even qualify as electors. The strongly conservative cast of John Paul II's rule, with its stern reassertion of traditional teaching and attempts to curb the doctrinal, liturgical and pastoral deviations he and his advisers believe to have invaded the church since the Second Vatican Council, will mean that the election will be specially fraught. The cardinals will have to opt for more of the same, or a fresh start.

The darling of the moderate left is Carlo Maria Martini, the tall, intellectual archbishop of Milan. Martini is 70, a man driven by a desire to re-evangelise the jaded and shrinking Christianity of the West. A gifted interpreter of scripture, he regularly fills the cathedral of his de-Christianised city to overflowing with workers and young people for simple weekday services of prayer and reflection on the Bible. He has been the moving force behind challenging pastoral initiatives by the Italian bishops, and his books fill the shelves of every religious bookshop. But Martini is a Jesuit, an order not always trusted by bishops, and there has never been a Jesuit pope. He is, moreover, looked on with some coolness in Rome, where his liberal opinions and outspoken dismissal of the hype surrounding the preparations for the approaching millenium have not gone down well. Universally respected, he is too austere to be much loved, and there are rumours about his poor health. Above all, he is every media commentator's frontrunner for the job, and there is another Roman saying, "he who enters the Conclave Pope, comes out a cardinal": the smart money is not on Martini.

An election from among the Curial cardinals is unlikely. The best-known of them is the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the 70-year-old Bavarian Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the old Inquisition). Ratzinger has his admirers, but relations between the CDF and the rest of the church are poor. Even conservative hierarchies have found the increasingly heavy-handed dogmatic policing from the centre hard to stomach. There has been universal dismay at Ratzinger's department's handling of Tissa Balasuriya, the hapless Sri Lankan proponent of a half-baked mix of liberation and feminist theologies, designed to help "acculturate" Christianity in an Asian setting. Balasuriya's ideas have found few defenders, but his abrupt excommunication last January, (apparently with the pope's personal approval), seemed to most observers trigger-happy and inhumane. It was also ecumenically disastrous, confirming ancient Protestant suspicions about Roman authoritarianism. The cardinals are unlikely to elect anyone closely identified with these policies.

The likelihood is that the next pope will not be an Italian. Wojtyla's election in 1978 broke a 450-year-old Italian monopoly, and his subsequent appointments to the cardinalate have wiped out the Italian and indeed the European predominance within it. It is becoming clear that the presence of a Pole in the Vatican in the 1980s was a crucial factor in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. But no one wants an eastern European agenda to continue to shape papal policy, so the next pope is unlikely to come from the East.

Among the other Europeans, perhaps the most remarkable is the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, a convert (at the age of 14) from a refugee Polish Jewish family, many of whose relatives perished in Auschwitz, and who insists on his continuing Jewish identity. A charismatic preacher and a strong personality, Lustiger might be thought too like John Paul II.

At the other end of the scale is the primate of Belgium, Godfried Danneels, a comparatively youthful 64. A former theology professor and an intellectual, Danneels is an irenic figure, well known to other bishops because of his key role on the Council of the World Synod of bishops. His would be a safe pair of hands, but non-Europeans might think him a dull choice, with little to offer in the way of vision as the Church enters the third millennium.

And it may well be that this Conclave will produce the first non-European pope since antiquity. Catholicism long since ceased to be a predominantly European religion. Its heartlands are the Americas, Africa and Asia, and though its grip in much of South America is under threat, eroded by a chronic shortage of clergy and by the wildfire spread of Pentecostal protestantism, in Asia and Africa the churches, religious houses and seminaries are full to overflowing.

Africans occupy a number of key Vatican posts. The 75-year-old west African Bernardin Gantin has headed the Congregation that appoints all the world's bishops since 1984. Gantin himself is probably not a serious contender, but the Nigerian Francis Arinze is another matter, a vigorous 65-year-old whose leadership in the 1970s was crucial for the reconstruction of the Nigerian church after the civil war there, one of the great success stories of the modern church.

Theologically conservative, he has nevertheless played a key role in the movement to "inculturate" Catholicism in native African styles of worship and architecture. Arinze is head of the Vatican department dealing with other faiths, and his election would be seen as a strong gesture towards some of the most vital energies within the modern church.

In Latin America all the tensions of modern Catholicism are writ large. John Paul II has been deeply suspicious of the liberation theology that has flourished there, which he views as thinly veiled Marxism. The Vatican has been uneasy about bishops like the Brazilian Evaristo Arns of Sao Paolo, one of Paul VI's cardinals, who threw himself into the defence of the poor and the rights of workers, and who is a strong supporter of the lay-run "base communities" that have helped preserve - and transform - grass-roots Catholicism there.

By contrast, Latin American conservatives like the Colombian Lopez Trujillo who heads the Pontifical Commission for the Family have been cherished by John Paul II. At 47, Lopez Trujillo was the world's youngest cardinal when he was appointed in 1983, a reward for sterling service as a brake on Celam, the Conference of Latin American Bishops.

Whoever is finally elected, wherever he comes from, the cardinals and the man they elect to the world's loneliest job have an awesome responsibility.

Eamon Duffy is reader in church history in the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Magdalen College: his latest book, Saints and Sinners: a History of the Popes, is published by Yale University Press.

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