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Electing the Next Pope

The race is close, and turnout promises to be high.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The next pope will be Christoph Schönborn, cardinal archbishop of Vienna. The principal editor of the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church, Schönborn was among Benedict’s favorite students back when the current pope was a theology professor, and he stands as one of the few high clerics to act heroically during the sexual-abuse scandal. What’s more, he urged Benedict to push into retirement the flawed Cardinal Sodano (a man whose career has been repeatedly touched by reports of financial impropriety, however much the old-priests’ network tried to shield him). Smart, personable, profoundly devout, Schönborn deserves to be pope.

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Except, of course, that no one ever deserves that office beyond all human deserts. For that matter, Schönborn’s efforts came to naught, and Sodano successfully fended off retirement. He remains dean of the college of cardinals and will lead the conclave that picks the new pope in the middle of March, which, one imagines, rather weakens the 68-year-old Schönborn’s chances. “He’s simply stepped on too many toes,” one Roman cleric explained. Vatican officials will form a third of the conclave: 39 out of 117 members. And while they may respect Schönborn—it was he who, for example, led the effort to elect Benedict in the conclave of 2005—they do not trust him not to reassign them all to missionary work in the Outer Hebrides. Fire them all, God will know his own isn’t a line most of the Vatican wants to hear from someone newly elected to St. Peter’s throne.

Which means the next pope probably won’t be Christoph Schönborn, cardinal archbishop of Vienna. No one ever got rich—or at least, no one since the Borgia pope Alexander VI got rich—betting on the outcome of a Vatican conclave. Not that they don’t still try, despite Gregory XIX’s 1591 bull excommunicating anyone wagering on papal elections. The British bookmakers, who pride themselves on offering bets for almost everything, have settled on the trio of the Nigerian cardinal, Francis Arinze, the French Canadian Marc Ouellet, and the Ghanaian Peter Turkson as the frontrunners, although all three are odds-against.

Arinze was once the youngest Catholic bishop in the world and, for many years after, among the most obviously papable figures in the church. Those days came and went, however, during John Paul II’s long papacy, and the now 80-year-old Arinze has little chance of being elected to replace an 85-year-old pope retiring on the basis of advanced age. Arinze’s fellow African, the 64-year-old Turkson, is a charismatic figure, but he is not respected as an intellectual—and perhaps even dismissed as something of a lightweight enthusiast, prone to sound off on matters beyond his knowledge.

The 68-year-old Ouellet is a much more likely candidate. An official in Rome, he is prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which means he knows, and is known by, both the Vatican bureaucracy and the cardinal archbishops outside of Italy. If he has a weakness at which the conclave will look, it is that his time leading the archdiocese of Quebec was not happy, and he lacks a track record as a successful bishop.

The 71-year-old Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, could be considered the most obvious candidate: an Italian insider, former professor turned administrator, and a member of nearly every important congregation and council in Rome. Of course, all of that could count against him. The mess of the Vatican bureaucracy must be addressed by the next pope, and the conclave may well decide that the bureaucracy is itself the cause of the mess, requiring an outsider to clean it all up.

The odds of a pope from the United States, even New York’s Timothy Dolan, are slim to nonexistent. South America, however, may see some interest. The archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Maria Bergoglio, is well respected—enough, anyway, that he emerged as a leading figure in the 2005 conclave that chose Benedict. Although he has firmly rejected any thought of the papacy for himself this time around, he could play kingmaker and persuade the cardinals to elect one of his fellow South Americans: Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri (although he’s really more of an Italian now, after all his time in Rome), Honduras’s Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga (whose election would be read as weakening Jewish-Christian relations), or, most likely, Brazil’s Odilo Scherer. 

The selection of Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines would be very good for the church in Asia—the fastest growing area of Christianity, now that the evangelization of Africa is nearly complete. Unfortunately, no other Asian candidate stands out.

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