- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Pope John Paul II does not have long in this world. No medically savvy observer of the man can deny the signs of anemia and hints of organ failure. With fresh press reports about kidney dialysis and spreading cancer, it is hardly shocking to hear cardinals talk openly of his demise and the subsequent conclave to elect a successor. Some outspoken Church liberals suggest the pope should resign, a move that was unthinkable before the liberalizing Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Today, politicking for the chair of St. Peter is less hidden than ever before.

At this point, the next conclave is wide open. There are informal parties of cardinal-electors organized on ideological and geographic grounds, but any one of a dozen candidates might be elected. Last year, shrewd Rome pundit-friends confidently asserted that an Italian would be next — but contacts in the College of Cardinals aren’t so sure of that anymore.

One new factor is the fresh batch of cardinals named in October. The new appointments can be seen as a move by certain Vatican insiders to tilt the balance before an upcoming conclave. If so, it is telling that the new cardinals have a distinct leftist tilt. Two conservatives were conspicuously passed up by the pontiff. One of them promptly resigned his Vatican position, leading some to suspect that Italian liberals have seized the initiative. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops and a trusted confidant of the pope’s, is seen to be pulling the strings.

There is significant speculation that the Machiavellian Re group might want the next pontiff to be from the Third World. But after the long 25-year papacy of John Paul II, the first non-Italian many centuries, many cardinals are leaning toward another Italian for old-times sake. Most horse-race analyses suggest that the large Italian voting bloc will be negated as liberals lock horns with conservatives in the conclave, as they did when Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978. Conclave handicappers like me don’t see this as a possibility for one simple reason: There are no Italian conservatives left. There are 24 Italian liberals and center-leftists who should have no problem unifying as a bloc for their man.

To understand the College of Cardinals one has to let go of the persistent notion that Pope John Paul II himself is a stout conservative. The man he bested in 1978, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa, was defeated — all sides agree — because he was “too conservative” to get the two-thirds majority that was required at the time. Cardinal Siri was the stereotypical conservative, while Karol Wojtyla of Poland, the future Pope John Paul II, was the center-left candidate. And he has governed as such.

So who might Pope John Paul II’s powerful center-left cardinals like Cardinal Re have in mind for the papacy next? A recent trip to Rome convinced me that this bloc does want another Italian — and these are master chess players. Their strategy is simple: persuade colleagues that they don’t need a Third World pope to keep the Church “evolving” in the current direction. Italians have the same liberal vision, and with such a large base can implement policy easier than any African or Latino. Another voting bloc, second in size to the Italians, that will play almost as crucial a role in the next conclave are the Americans. Dizzy with financial difficulties and bad press from homosexual priest scandals, the American vote is unpredictable. But all else being equal, the American cardinals, like any group of senior citizens in a jam, are likely to opt for the safest course, which would be a predictable Italian.

Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, who narrowly missed indictment and was driven from his archdiocese, has sought refuge in Rome these days. He is a living reminder to his American colleagues that there is a certain security in staying close to the Italians, who on a practical basis are still the Church’s operating officers. If the Americans vote for the respected Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan or for Cardinal Re himself, the conclave will end quickly, with an old-fashioned decisive majority for the Machiavellians.

What makes the conclave a potential mess is Pope John Paul II’s tweaking of traditional conclave rules and regulations. After 28 ballots, the required two-thirds majority may be dropped by common consent to 51 percent. The new 51 percent rule means that almost anything can happen if a bloc patiently waits through enough ballots. This could open the door for the most liberal pope ever. My money is on an Italian.

Roger A. McCaffrey is president of McCaffrey Publishing and Roman Catholic Books.

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