In some ways, the selection of a new pope will have more potential to influence the future of Catholicism than the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then 78, in 2005.
In the eight years since Pope Benedict took office, the divisions in the Catholic world have become more solidified. The West, including Europe and the United States, has been locked in a culture war over contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the church, among other issues. Meanwhile, more theologically traditional Catholics in Africa and parts of Asia have fueled much of the church’s growth, threatening a standoff with Islam.
In other words, the next pope will have to carefully pick his audience and decide how best to communicate with it without alienating the rest of the faith’s followers.
Benedict was known for saying he expected the Catholic Church to become smaller and more cohesive — a comment “big tent” Catholics found alienating. Yet he never truly seemed comfortable making that call, saying and writing that there should be room for all Catholics. His successor may face more explicit choices.
“If you run any business, whether it’s the papacy or a pizza shop, you have to consider if you focus on your core or where you’re expanding. The Catholic Church is doing magnificently in some areas, but the core is collapsing,” said Philip Jenkins, an expert on global Christianity at Baylor University. “If the papacy is anything, it’s a bully pulpit. The question is, who you are going to appeal to?”
Early candidate names don’t give away much. It seems highly likely that the Vatican’s choice will be in the conservative mold; popes John Paul II and Benedict all but assured that by promoting cardinals who prioritized traditional doctrine.
But other qualities are up for grabs, with possible candidates varying considerably in style and background, as well as nationality — a detail that has grown in importance as the church’s following has diversified.
Close watchers of the Vatican say the cardinals who will select Benedict’s successor are watching the media-savvy leader of the massive Milan archdiocese, Cardinal Angelo Scola; top Vatican administrator Marc Ouellet of Canada; and Peter Turkson of Ghana. Also in the mix is jovial New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who if he overcame the odds would make history as a superpower pope, something that has been frowned upon.