An Italian newspaper publishes a controversial report on an alleged secret network of gay priests in the Vatican. Campaigns start against two American cardinals linked to sex abuse scandals who are about to head to Rome to vote for the new pope. A top British cardinal steps down amid allegations of unspecified "inappropriate" behavior with priests and says he won't attend the papal conclave. Catholics worldwide start opining about what the next pontiff's race, age and origin should be, while the dozen or so rumored candidates for pope keep insisting, "No, not me!"
Welcome to the secretive and at times confusing process of selecting a new pope.
In two days, Pope Benedict XVI will stay goodbye to the papacy, leaving the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics without a leader and dozens of top-ranking cardinals in charge.
Nobody knows exactly when the conclave -- the closed-door meeting of cardinals who will elect Benedict's successor -- will take place. According to new rules that Benedict issued Monday, it could be as early as March 1 or as late as March 20. It's up to the cardinals to decide, though reports have indicated the conclave may start between March 9 and 11.
But as the mostly European men who will choose the new leader of the largest church in the world arrive at the Vatican this week, the maneuverings, media leaks and seemingly off-the-cuffs remarks are well under way.
"There's technically no overt campaign," said Catholic church analyst Father Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Public campaigning for the papacy is frowned upon and any cardinal who did so would not get the position, he said.
"What the cardinals will say publicly is mostly generalities about what kind of pope they want -- maybe someone from the Third World or a good communicator. But the real politicking goes on over dinner and coffee behind closed doors as the cardinals feel one another out, ask questions and figure out who will best succeed the pope," Reese said.
The conclave itself, involving a time-honored series of ballot-casting rituals, will take place at the Sistine Chapel. But the 115 cardinals who will vote in the conclave will all reside at the closely guarded Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence just past the outskirts of Vatican City. It's there and at meetings and Masses across Vatican City where the discreet, seemingly casual inquiries into who could and should be the next pope will take place.
Should the next pope be from Europe, as tradition holds, or from Africa, South America, North America or Asia? The names of several non-European cardinals have been floated in the media as potential successors, including long-shot contenders from the U.S.: Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Sean O'Malley of Boston. ("Please God, I'll be home by Palm Sunday ... if I'm in Rome longer, please send peanut butter," Dolan wrote Monday on his blog.)
Should the new pope be younger? Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, also rumored to be in the running, is 64, while Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec is 68. (Benedict, 85, became pope at age 78 and cited his ailing health as one reason he is stepping down.)
Should the pope come from a more liberal wing of the church? Chances are that the next pontiff, in substance if perhaps not in style, will closely resemble Benedict: conservative by doctrine and determined to maintain church teachings on controversial issues such as sexuality and contraception. Just look at the numbers: Among the voting cardinals, more than half have been appointed by Benedict, while the rest are appointees of John Paul II. While Benedict's more guarded demeanor differentiates him from the famous warmth of his predecessor, the two men agreed theologically.
Where should the smart money go? As in American politics, cardinals tend to vote for people they are familiar with, which means Italians and other Europeans -- who because of geography alone circle most frequently at the Vatican -- have a leg up, say church observers.
"For most of the church's life, we've had two or three dozen cardinals who probably knew each other to one degree or another," said Christopher Bellitto, chairman and associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J. "Now with all these cardinals, there's no possible way they all know each other. For the 10 names that are on anybody's list, people will sit over dinner and lunch and say to each other, 'Do you know this person? What do you think of him?' That's very different from direct campaigning or any alliances."
"These are human beings trying to operate in an institution established by Jesus," he added.
The human element is key, Reese said.
First, of course, the cardinals want to choose someone who will lead the church well, albeit in the direction that each cardinal supports.
But second, Reese said, "they are looking for someone they have a good relationship with, someone who listens to them. Ideally, they would like one of their friends to be pope -- that's how they would have influence on the papacy. Third, they want someone who is well-received in their own country. Tip O'Neill was right: All politics is local."