With John Paul's death the Sacred College of Cardinals faces the critical responsibility of electing a successor, a duty it has not executed in more than 26 years. Such procedures are fraught with suspense and barnacled with gossip and speculation. Secular and nonsecular observers fall over themselves trying to gauge the political and philosophical mind of the electorate before the Cardinals gather behind tightly closed doors to discuss, debate and ultimately decide who will be the successor of Peter.
The pre-vote guesswork is like nothing so much as handicapping a horse race, and the field is deep but without a clear favorite. Although John Paul personally selected all but three of the 117 voting Cardinals, don't expect a clone of the departed Pontiff. The outcome is often an expression of a pent-up desire to adjust the church's compass, however subtly. That said, the Italian members of the Sacred College had established, before the ascension of the Polish Karol Cardinal Wojtyla in 1978, a 456-year tradition of selecting from among themselves. Though the percentage of electors from Italy has plummeted from the 33% who helped elect John XXIII in 1958 to 17% today, the 20 Italians who can cast ballots remain powerful, and the next Bishop of Rome could be Italian.
For years CARLO MARIA CARDINAL MARTINI, 78, a Scripture scholar who was Archbishop of Milan, was considered a possible progressive successor to John Paul. But he stepped down from the archdiocese in 2002, spends half his year studying in Jerusalem and is effectively out of the running.
As the Cardinals file toward the chapel, Martini will be seen as the progressive kingmaker facing down a troika of powerful conservative Rome-based Cardinals: John Paul's doctrinal policy chief, JOSEPH CARDINAL RATZINGER of Germany; the head of Italy's Bishops' Conference, CAMILLO CARDINAL RUINI; and Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano. The thinking is that their favored candidate would be DIONIGI CARDINAL TETTAMANZI, 71, the former Archbishop of Genoa, who has succeeded Martini in Milan. His philosophical approach is sufficiently unclear that neither the progressive Cardinals nor the doctrinaire are likely to oppose him. In Genoa he spoke out in favor of antiglobalization protesters, and in Milan he has called for compassion toward immigrants, drawing the wrath of rightist politicians.
Meanwhile he has remained in league with the conservative lay organization Opus Dei, which is rumored to have been working for some time as a preconclave lobby to make certain that the next Pope is a staunch traditionalist. Tettamanzi would play very well: he has a kind, grandfatherly mien still associated at the Vatican with the much beloved Pope John XXIII. Yet there is said to be friction between the Archbishop of Milan and his predecessor, Martini. The man who might have been Pope could work to derail Tettamanzi's candidacy. There are enough intrigues in Rome just now to fill a Dan Brown novel.