Even within regions, there is great diversity. For example, some African Catholics aren’t as orthodox on contraception, which can protect from AIDS, but are conservative on homosexuality.
“We’ve had two popes in a row who have been academics. It might be smart to look for someone who is a diplomat or someone with some management skills,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, former editor of the Catholic magazine America. “In the last two conclaves, they’ve elected the smartest man in the room. It might be better to elect someone who will listen to all the other smart people in the church.”
Catholic debate in the United States often centers on issues such as whether the church should allow the ordination of women or married priests. But those are not the debates of the cardinals, all of whom were picked by Benedict or his like-minded predecessor, Pope John Paul II. They are in agreement on such matters as allowing female priests, contraception, or equality for gay men and lesbians: no, no and no.
The real factors behind the selection of a new pope are “not the kind of stuff that comes up on talk shows,” said John L. Allen Jr., who has written seven books on the Catholic Church and popes.
The top priority, Allen and others say, is to make Catholics evangelizers again. The church has spent much of the past half-century, since the modernizing and controversial Second Vatican Council, locked in internal debates and not out spreading the gospel. Many blame an antiquated communications style and system, one epitomized by the pope’s news-halting announcement Monday, which he delivered in Latin at a meeting of cardinals.
Pope Benedict did try in his own scholarly way to communicate, by writing more books than almost any other pope and calling for “a new evangelization.” Recently, he joined Twitter, immediately amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. But it seems the least traditional thing he did in his tenure was decide to resign from office.
Dennis Doyle, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said that many liberal Catholics want someone who can “appreciate a wide spectrum of positions and who can contribute to overcoming polarization. And who can, without losing focus, allow the church to be a big tent. And who can span the developed countries and the Southern Hemisphere. I think we need someone from Krypton.”
Some note that the selection of a new pope is one of the most-watched moments for the Catholic Church and so presents an opportunity for the Vatican to show how adept it can be at communicating its mission and values to the world.
There are numerous questions to answer, including a basic one that a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman couldn’t answer Monday: What do you call a retired pope?
“Trying to figure that out now,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh said in an e-mail.
And how much influence will he have on a successor?
“One of the biggest challenges he’ll leave his successor is how to act toward a retired pope. How much voice will a retired pope have, if any? Do you draw on his wisdom? Do you ask him to participate?” said John Thavis, a journalist who recently published “The Vatican Diaries,” about the inner workings in Rome. “What if you disagree with one of the policies? Do you make sure no one knows because it could cause confusion? These are unanswered questions.”