Will the princes of the Roman Catholic Church, meeting beneath Michelangelo's sublime frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, send up a puff of white smoke announcing a black pope from Nigeria? Or will they choose a smooth, experienced Brazilian? What about the charismatic rising star from Honduras? Or will they decide the church needs a breather and go with a consensus-building Italian?
The answer may well be none of the above -- the 117 cardinals eligible to vote in the coming conclave are enjoined from talking about the politics of papal selection, leaving everyone else to speculate in the dark. But lists of papabili -- cardinals who are considered papal material -- have been circulating for some time, and the names reflect some of the tough choices the church will have to make following the epic papacy of John Paul II.
Perhaps the central issue is demographic: Only about one-third of Roman Catholics live in the United States and Europe. The rest live mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and the imbalance widens each year. The church is growing in the Third World but not in the industrialized north.
So why shouldn't the next pope be someone like Cardinal Francis Arinze? Born in Nigeria, Arinze was baptized at age 9 and rose rapidly through the hierarchy, becoming a bishop at 32 after just seven years as a priest. Now 72, he has spent the past two decades in Rome, serving for nearly 20 years as architect of the Vatican's relations with Islam. He is said to be well-liked by his colleagues, and if chosen would be the first African pope in 1,500 years.
Then again, the conclave could choose Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the 70-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, who tamped down the Brazilian church's ardor for radical "liberation theology" while retaining its commitment to social justice. Or it could pick Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a relative youngster at 62, who speaks seven languages and is often greeted by crowds in his homeland with chants of "John Paul III!" Selection of either of these men would acknowledge the fact that fully 43 percent of Catholics live in Latin America.
There are other Third World cardinals among the lists of papabili, but these three are most often cited. It is unclear, though, how any of them would sit with the American church.
Arinze is known as a conservative in church matters, and has said that the institution of marriage is "mocked by homosexuality." Hummes is a social liberal who has advocated for Brazil's poor and dispossessed but has not bucked the Vatican on matters of doctrine.
And Rodriguez, despite speaking so many languages fluently, stuck his foot firmly in his mouth during the sex-abuse scandal here, claiming that the American church was being "persecuted," drawing comparisons to the ravages of Hitler and Stalin, and suggesting that the American press was punishing the church in part for its support of the Palestinians.
In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter's authoritative Vatican correspondent, John L. Allen Jr., Rodriguez refused to disavow his remarks but put them in a larger context. What he meant, he told Allen, was that in a world with so much poverty, racism and exploitation, was the sex-abuse story really that important?
The concerns of these Third World papabili are different from those of many American Catholics. An expanded role for women in the church has not been on the agenda of any of them, at least not publicly. None has publicly bucked the Vatican on birth control, none has broken any new ground on homosexuality, and none has betrayed the level of concern over priestly sex abuse that American Catholics have felt.
But American Catholics are a shrinking minority. If the conclave chooses a pope from the Third World, he is likely to be more vocal than John Paul II as an advocate for the poor -- and could be just as conservative as John Paul II, or even more so, on the doctrinal issues about which so many Catholics in this country are concerned. The church's agenda might shift to fall in line with the agenda of the majority of the faithful.
Of course, the conclave could try to defer the demographic issues by choosing a don't-rock-the-boat Italian caretaker, such as Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, 70, the archbishop of Milan. But even that would be a gamble: Pope John XXIII was initially seen as a caretaker, and he ended up calling the Vatican II Council that revolutionized the church. The assembled cardinals have much to think about.