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Holy Men Gather at Vatican for a Political Rite

Rather than birth control, clerical celibacy or the ordination of women, the questions that seem to be foremost in many cardinals' minds are what to do about rising secularism in Western Europe, the challenge of Islam and reforming the church's bureaucracy. Some have signaled these concerns in speeches in recent years.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini of Rome, for example, has been a strong defender of Europe's Catholic traditions and could draw support from colleagues who worry about declining church attendance and rising Muslim populations in France, Italy and Germany. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan has called for a decentralized church and could gain a following among those who seek more independence for local bishops from Vatican dictates. And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany remarked recently about "filth" in the church, a stance that could bolster his support among U.S. cardinals looking for a pope who will back efforts to deal severely with sexual abusers in the priesthood.

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In the absence of public debates by the cardinals, however, Vatican watchers have proposed various frameworks for understanding the often subtle shadings among them.

John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the weekly National Catholic Reporter and author of a book on the next papal election, has attempted to divide the 117 voting cardinals into four loose, overlapping "political parties." He identifies a right wing and a left wing on internal church matters, as well as a right and a left on global affairs.

On internal matters, the right wing wants a pope who will resist any blurring of the line between clergy and laity, oppose experiments with the Mass and other liturgies, and insist on Catholicism's claim to superiority over other religions and Christian churches. The left wing, in Allen's view, wants someone who will place "a healthy degree of trust" in local churches to "express the constant witness of the Catholic Church in language that's appropriate to local circumstances."

On global affairs, the right wing seeks legislation to incorporate Catholic positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, into laws in many countries and to stem the tide of Muslim immigrants into Europe. The left is more interested in pushing social justice issues, such as debt relief and treatment for HIV/AIDS, Allen says.

Privately, some cardinals have dismissed these categories as unrealistic, saying they would fit into most or all of them. The Rev. Robert Gahl, an adjunct professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said he believed cardinals were more likely to think about candidates for the papacy in terms of three traditional Catholic categories: prophet, priest and king.

Gahl said all priests and bishops were trained to think of the pope as filling a tria munera, or threefold office, of teaching, sanctifying and governing. In choosing a successor to John Paul, a prodigious writer of encyclicals and other teaching documents, cardinals may see less need for a prolific teacher, he said. "There are even some bishops saying: Hold on, we have too many documents already, let's take some time to digest John Paul's legacy."

On the other hand, John Paul is widely viewed within the church as having delegated a lot of authority to the Roman Curia, the Vatican's permanent bureaucracy. He set the overarching rules for the church, but "it is a commonplace that he was not a hands-on administrator, and many people now speak of a need for further reform in how the church is governed," Gahl said.

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