New York Times
April 17, 2005
ROME, April 16 - There was never doubt that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's hard-line defender of the faith, would have a strong hand in selecting the next pope. But in the days of prayer and politics before the conclave, which begins on Monday, he has emerged as perhaps the surprise central figure: the man who could become the 265th pope, choose him or be the one other cardinals knock from the running.
Any talk of who will become the next pope is guesswork, echoes from cardinals and their staffs sworn to silence about one of the world's most elite and secretive gatherings.
But one bit of wisdom has emerged in the Italian press as conventional: that Cardinal Ratzinger, a German close to John Paul II, has up to 50 votes among the 115 elector cardinals, or at least that is the strength his supporters claim.
That is short of the two-thirds, or 77 votes, needed in the early stages of voting. Still, he appears to command the largest and most cohesive block, and at a minimum, it seems unlikely that the next pope will be chosen without his blessing.
But interviews with more than a dozen Vatican experts and church officials suggest that forces are lining up against Cardinal Ratzinger - who, at 78, may be judged too old, too uncharismatic and, perhaps most important, too rigid to hold together a polarized church that is a billion people strong.
Some believe the church needs a more moderate man, a less authoritarian leader or one from outside of Europe, perhaps from Latin America or Asia.
"Ratzinger represents continuity - he was the right-hand man of the pope," said Giuseppe De Carli, head of Italian public television's Vatican bureau, who in recent years has interviewed most of 115 cardinals who will begin the secretive process of selecting the new pope on Monday.
"But the cardinals need both continuity and discontinuity," he added. "They can't create a pope that will be the photocopy of the preceding one."
Some experts say that is precisely the problem: that Cardinal Ratzinger has ambitions higher than being a photocopy of John Paul. He is, according to this school, more like a vice president who bided his time, waiting to take the reins and correct the deficiencies of his predecessor.
From Cardinal Ratzinger's record and pronouncements, his agenda seems clear. Inside the church, he would like to impose more doctrinal discipline, reining in priests who experiment with church liturgy or seminaries that permit a broad interpretation of church doctrine. Outside, he would like the church to assert itself more forcefully against the trend he sees as most threatening: globalization leading eventually to global secularization.
But some cardinals worry that it is healing, not confrontation, that the church needs.
Most cardinals eligible to vote are now refusing media interviews - a consequence of the media blackout the cardinals decided to impose eight days ago. But some cardinals are talking on background to Vatican colleagues, church scholars, leaders of Catholic organizations and to Italian journalists who specialize in covering the Vatican. The New York Times spoke with several cardinals and more than a dozen people who have recently been in contact with the cardinals. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The top candidate of the disparate forces opposing the Ratzinger bloc appears to be Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, who could also have a chance of peeling off a few votes from the Ratzinger camp. His profile offers a little something for each flank. A conservative moral theologian who has written on bioethics, he collaborated with John Paul on the encyclical "The Gospel of Life" which laid out the justifications for opposing abortion, birth control and euthanasia.
In recent years, however, Cardinal Tettamanzi has began to sound off on issues of concern to the wing of the church that is more concerned about poverty and social justice. When protesters went to Genoa, Italy, for the Group of 8 summit meeting of industrialized nations in 2001, he spoke to the crowd on the evils of globalization.
"The man who can unite all of these groups, from conservatives to liberals, is Tettamanzi," Mr. Magister said. "He is an exponent of compromise, but a real honest conservative."
The interviews suggest that the standard-bearer for the liberals among the anti-Ratzinger forces is, at least for the moment, the retired archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. There is a strange sort of symmetry to the two men: both are 78-year-old scholars with stratospheric intellects who command the respect of their colleagues.
But Cardinal Martini appears to control far fewer votes. He has said he has not ruled out changes to priestly celibacy or the bans on contraception and on women serving as deacons. He has a form of Parkinson's disease and, unlike Cardinal Ratzinger, is not considered an active candidate. He has influence, however, and experts say that while he respects Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Martini does not support his doctrinaire vision of the church.
"Martini," said Alberto Melloni, a papal historian, "thinks that if the church does not move on in terms of doctrine, it is condemned to lose the content of Christian truth."
If the cardinals could start from scratch and order up the perfect pope, the candidate to lead the Roman Catholic Church of 2005 might look like this:
Charismatic and basically conservative. Intellectual but still able to talk to the uneducated. Speaks Italian, Spanish and English. Not too old, not too young, since the cardinals want neither a 26-year papacy like John Paul's nor a pope who will be bedridden in two or three years. A pastor, but one familiar with the difficult Vatican bureaucracy. Someone willing to let local bishops go their own way - but not too much. Perhaps he would be from the third world, where the church is growing, but he has ties to Europe and could reinvigorate the flagging faith there, too.
By holding this template against the actual men in the running gives some clues, with the caution that the candidate who comes closest does not necessarily win. The human factor of politics will also play a major role - and at this moment the central player is indisputably Cardinal Ratzinger.
A close associate of John Paul for nearly 30 years, he has a soft voice, a shy manner and a head full of white hair. Friends say that he gets wrongly portrayed as "God's Rottweiler" and that he is actually a warm and spiritual man, who comforted colleagues especially toward the end John Paul's illness.
"In the last months of John Paul's papacy, Ratzinger was visible as the supporting column of the church, and so they are following him," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for L'Espresso magazine.
Several church sources said Cardinal Ratzinger had the support of an influential, international array of cardinals, including Francis George of Chicago; Christoph Schonborn of Austria; Latin Americans, including Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Italians, including Camillo Ruini and Angelo Scola; and Marc Ouellet of Quebec.
But his positions have earned him many detractors, because some cardinals have said in interviews before this week that he would centralize power even more than John Paul, just when many cardinals are hoping for their local dioceses to have a greater say in their affairs.
Cardinal Martini's progressive bloc could not wield enough votes to block Cardinal Ratzinger. But the opposition is being joined, several Vatican watchers said, by other groups with their own agendas, in particular a group of influential Italian cardinals, who by several accounts include Angelo Sodano, John Paul's last secretary of state, and Giovanni Battista Re, who had been in charge of bishops under the late pope.
The members of the Ratzinger contingent are well aware that their candidate may lose, and so are ready to throw their votes to a backup. The most obvious and formidable, several experts said, is Cardinal Ruini, the vicar of Rome.
Cardinal Ruini is known as a forceful figure in Italian politics, opposing rights for gays and lesbians and some forms of assisted reproduction, and supporting rights for immigrants. He has also proved himself an efficient manager.
But Cardinal Ruini must face opposition from those Italian cardinals supporting Cardinal Tettamanzi.
So other Ratzinger protégés, potentially powerful candidates on their own, could emerge to take his place.
One is Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, a conservative Jesuit who lives humbly and early in his career distanced himself from proponents of liberation theology. Born to Italian parents, he is perceived by Vatican watchers as someone who could be a bridge between Latin America and Europe.
A second is Cardinal Scola, patriarch of Venice, a scholar and a tireless pastor, the former rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He has spotless conservative credentials, especially on sexual morality and family issues, softened by his grass-roots style.
Another is Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna. An aristocrat, he has often made lists of potential popes because of his intellect, language skills and conservatism, but, according to interviews this week, his star has fallen for what are considered lackluster administrative skills.
The Latin American cardinals, with 18 percent of the cardinal electors, match the strength of the Italians. But they do not all share the same vision of the church's needs. Nor, it seems, are they all rooting for the home team.
Alejandro Bermúdez, the Peruvian editor in chief of ACI Prensa, a Catholic news agency in Latin America, said those prelates held no conviction that the next pope must be from Latin America. "They would not be opposed to it," he said, "but at this time it is not their priority."
Nevertheless, several Latin Americans were frequently mentioned in the interviews as strong candidates: Cardinal Bergoglio; Claudio Hummes, of Brazil, a progressive who moved to the right but is still strongly engaged in social issues; and Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, considered charming and charismatic and a conservative on social issues. He is also a pilot and a piano player.
Two from Mexico also cropped up: Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, archbishop of Mexico, who at 62 may be considered too young, and Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, 72, archbishop of Guadalajara.
The interviews also indicated that several cardinals who had been widely proclaimed as favorites were now being discounted. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, a charismatic proponent of church reform, represents an archdiocese where only a tiny percentage of Catholics even attend church, making him emblematic of the church's impotence in the face of secularization.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, a charming Nigerian, was celebrated for years as the man who could become the first black pope. But this week, Vatican experts and insiders said his fortunes were falling.
With so many candidates and so much apparent division, another familiar situation is looking more and more possible.
In the last conclave in 1978, Vatican-watchers had concocted lists of potential popes 20 to 30 names long, hoping that would cover all the bases. But Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal from Poland who became John Paul II after three days, made practically none of them.
"Do not underestimate the power of the microculture that is generated among the cardinals when they are together, said Mr. Bermúdez, the Peruvian editor. "The kind of reflections that end up influencing them are completely unpredictable."
Elisabetta Povoledo of the International Herald Tribune contributed reporting for this article.