With the start of the papal conclave today in Rome, my bet is on either Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 68, of Austria or Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez, 70, of Honduras. The choice will depend on whether the 117 Cardinals voting will lean more toward seriously reforming the Catholic Church -- notably as it relates to the continuing problem of pedophilia and lack of transparency -- or roughly keeping to the status quo. If it's the former, then Cardinal Schönborn, who is a progressive and has been a vocal critic of the Church's relative lack of openness and responsiveness to the pedophile priests scandal, will be the next pope. If it's the latter, then Cardinal Rodríguez, who is a moderate conservative, will win out.
If the Church is looking for someone to energize the Church and stir things up, then the choice of Cardinal Schönborn is an easy one. If not, then several things must happen before arriving at Cardinal Rodríguez. First of all, the 28 Italian Cardinals, which represent, by far, the largest voting block, must remain disunified on their pick.
There are three possible Italians. The most heavily favored of these is Cardinal Milan Angelo Scola, 71 -- a conservative -- of Milan. Then there is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 70 -- a moderate -- and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 70 -- a conservative. The Brazilian is Cardinal Odilo Scherer, 63, of São Paulo. Cardinal Scherer, a member of the Congregation of the Clergy (part of the Roman Curia), appears to have strong backing from influential Italian Cardinals such as Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. It would ultimately come down to him or Cardinal Scola. If the Italians could arrive at a consensus, then the next pope would either be an Italian or a Brazilian.
I'm betting the Italians will not be able to agree. Those who would support the conservative Italian Cardinal Scola would find it too difficult to go with the reformist Brazilian Cardinal Scherer. Settling on Cardinals Bagnasco or Ravasi would seem too much like... settling. At that point, the Italians might decide it's time to do something different and look for an outsider and a non-Italian.
Once the Italians and the Brazilian are eliminated, suddenly the possibilities become much more interesting. Now, you open it up to the North Americans: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, of the U.S. and Cardinal Marc Quellet, 66, of Canada. Both of these men are conservative. You also open it up to the Africans: Cardinal Peter Turkson fo Ghana, 64, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, 80, of Nigeria. Then you have the Latin Americans (excluding Cardinal Scherer): Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, of Argentina and Cardinal Rodríguez. Lastly, you have Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of the Philippines.
You can go ahead and cross Cardinal Dolan off the list. He's only been a Cardinal for one year, and besides -- he's from the United States. Not going to happen. Cardinal Quellet would be the more likely of the two North Americans. But he's still a North American. Cross off Cardinal Tagle. He's way too young -- a full three years younger than Cardinal Karol Wojtyła when he became Pope John Paul II and served for 27 years.
There seems to be a quiet consensus within the leadership of the Catholic Church that the "sweet spot" for the age of a papal candidate is somewhere in the mid-60s to early-70s. So go ahead and cross off Cardinal Arinze while you're at it. He's simply too old. Conclaves are a much bigger deal than presidential elections. You don't want to be having to elect a new pope every few years.
That leaves Cardinal Rodríguez, Cardinal Sandri and Cardinal Turkson. Call it a gut feeling, but the current crop of largely conservative Cardinals is probably not ready to elect a black man as pope. It would be a huge enough step for the Church to go with a non-European. Some 39 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world live in Latin America, and the region accounts for the second largest voting block of Cardinals: 19. If the choice comes down to an African or a Latin American, the Italians and the Latin Americans will go with a Latino.
In a choice between Cardinal Rodríguez and Cardinal Sandri, the deciding factor would be whether you want an outspoken social activist Pope or a quiet bureaucratic one. As president of the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Rodríguez has been a strong advocate for the poor. He has also worked tirelessly to encourage the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to pardon the debt of developing countries.
Cardinal Sandri, on the other hand, has spent much of his career in Rome as a member the Curia, holding key administrative positions such as Deputy Secretary of State. He has been a conservative member of Pope Benedict XVI's inner circle. Although he is from Latin America, he is neither a reformer nor an outsider. Nor is Cardinal Sandri personally engaging and charismatic.
On personality alone, Cardinal Rodríguez beats Cardinal Sandri hands down, and he's more moderate than Cardinal Sandri. Cardinal Rodríguez would be closer in style to Pope John Paul II; Cardinal Sandri more like Pope Benedict. Given the troubled state of the Catholic Church, probably the last thing it needs at the moment is another Benedict.
Cardinal Rodríguez, however, does come with his share of baggage. There is a perception by some (notably Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz) that he is anti-Semitic. This is based largely on comments he made a decade ago about a supposed smear campaign against the Catholic Church by the Jewish-controlled media aimed at overblowing the pedophelia scandal. The bigger concern, of course, is that Cardinal Rodríguez either was or continues to be in denial about the extent and criminal nature of this abuse by priests and the cover up by the Church hierarchy.
There was also some controversy about Cardinal Rodríguez's role in the 2009 coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya -- although the criticisms on this issue from the political left in Honduras are unfounded and based largely on the view that "if you weren't with us, you were against us."
It might reasonably be argued that Cardinal Rodríguez' baggage makes him thoroughly unsuited to be pope. Perhaps. But it's difficult to find Cardinals who are saints and, at the same time, possess other qualities and skills that would make them suitable to be Pope these days. Cardinal Rodríguez is no saint, but he is very smart, talented, experienced and charismatic. He's tough, he's a fighter, and he may be more progressive than many of the Cardinals who have been named during Pope Benedict's tenure.
Cardinal Schönborn is the only one of the top papal contenders that, if chosen, would make the kind of radical changes to the Catholic Church that are required to save it from its insulated culture, moral disorder and arrogance, and inspire confidence and enthusiasm among its followers. He was one of the first Cardinals to publicly challenge the Vatican to respond forcefully, humbly and openly to the pedophilia scandal. He did this while most of his colleagues remained quiet, hoping the scandal would blow over.
Cardinal Schönborn was not afraid to openly take on the powerful former Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano when he referred to media reports about the pedophilia scandal as "idle gossip." Cardinal Schönborn berated Cardinal Sodano for his lack of sensitivity and understanding about the evolving crisis. Later, Cardinal Schönborn accused Cardinal Sodano of blocking an investigation over alleged child abuse by Austrian Cardinal Hans Groër.
Cardinal Schönborn is a trouble-maker. He is exactly the kind of person who should head the Catholic Church. The Church desperately calls out for someone who is willing to shake off the rot. If it's not him, then -- well, my money is on the Honduran.