- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Is nothing sacred in our time?

London bookies, who will quote odds on which ant will spoil the first picnic of summer, have made Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan the favorite candidate for pope, going off at 5-2. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was quoted at 11-4 when the clubhouse door closed, and Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras was put at 4-1.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, everybody’s early favorite — i.e., the choice of the Vatican press pool — sank to 7-1 at post time.

But the press pool is even more irreverent. Irrelevant, too. All the learned analyses, printed in the newspapers with such solemn seriousness, are actually so much bunk. You might as well ask the ants at the picnic.

Still, speculation is entertaining, and Catholics offended by the secular encroachment on the ritual can take consolation in the fact that the secular world actually, sincerely, genuinely, earnestly cares who succeeds John Paul II.

Much of the news from Vatican City reads as if it were written by sportswriters — Granny Rice, not Jim Murray — and a lot of the analysis reads as if it had leaped from the keyboards of political writers. And why not? The cardinals, good men all, are politicians as well as priests or none of them would have made it to Rome.

So the smart money goes down on Cardinal Tettamanzi, 70, and if not him, one of the obscure Italians. If the cardinals choose a second pope from outside Italy, after four centuries of unbroken Italian dominion over the Roman church, Italy may wait another 400 years to get back the papacy. The cardinals say they’re seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit, and who can doubt it, but if the Holy Spirit speaks to the conclave in Italian, that’s OK, too.

“There are signs that the College of Cardinals may elect the first ‘Third World pope,’” the London Daily Telegraph typically reports. But the Telegraph’s correspondent, like all the others, does not tell us where these “signs” come from, so how can anyone know that the cardinals will respond to “shifting demographics within the church,” and tap a Third World cardinal to stanch the bleeding in Europe (through indifference and the selfishness and greed born of secularism) and Latin America (through the evangelism of Pentecostal Protestants).

Scribbler reasoning is what made Cardinal Arinze, 72, of Nigeria a flash favorite. Everybody likes writing about a charismatic, witty and urbane black man, universally described as a priest of keen mind with a conservative bent, and an expert on Islam besides, and the scribblers all naturally assume that the cardinals are determined to choose a man who can “soothe the tensions between Muslim and Christian in the post-9/11 world.” Cardinal Arinze would be the first black pope since Gelasius I in 492 - a thousand years before Columbus sailed off to despoil the environment in the New World. What could be cooler than that?

Such a dramatic result might or might not be what John Paul II had in mind when he packed the college with the cardinals he was counting on to be faithful to the ancient teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and not necessarily to soothe the whims and grant the wishes of the chattering classes, many of whom wouldn’t know a missal from a missile.

Like FDR packing the U.S. Supreme Court, John Paul appointed almost a hundred of the 115 cardinals now locked behind sealed doors in Vatican City. This is what caught the eye of the bookmakers in London. In fact, Paddy Power, one of the leading punting houses, gives favorable odds on four Italians in their top ten prospects.

But in the end they don’t know any more than anyone else outside the Vatican walls, and it may all be moot by the time paper and ink deliver these words. Father Guido Sarducci, the infamous (and the fantastical) gossip columnist for L’Osservatore Romano on the old “Saturday Night Live,” is nowhere when we need him most.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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