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Handicapping the next pontiff


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Lawrence Cunningham is a professor emeritus of theology at Notre Dame. He spoke to the Trib about possible successors to Pope Benedict XVI, who announced on Monday he is resigning effective Feb. 28.

Q: An Irish bookmaker already has made Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana the odds-on favorite to become the next pope. Would you agree with that assessment?

A: There's an old saying in Rome — it's very terse in Italian, I'll give it to you in English — about the conclave: “The one who goes in as pope usually comes out as a cardinal.” I also heard someone say on the radio that the sequence is fat pope, thin pope, fat pope, thin pope. I don't think that's very useful, either. For all of the speculation and all of the odds-making, we just don't know who the next pope is going to be.

Q: What characteristics do you think the College of Cardinals will be looking for in the candidates?

A: First, it's a given that the (next pope) is going to be, doctrinally, a traditionalist. Secondly, they are going to look for someone who has some worldwide experience and probably is going to be a polyglot (well-versed in multiple languages). Third, they are going to look for someone of deep piety. They also are going to look for someone who can take up the task of administration.

Q: Do the most prominently mentioned cardinals meet those qualifications?

A: Turkson, for example, he's a Ghanaian. He speaks six or seven languages. He has experience in Rome. You could see why he might be a likely candidate. Another name that has been mentioned is (Milan Archbishop) Angelo Scola, who is a theologian and bioethicist. If they're going to go Latin American, Cardinal (Oscar Andres) Rodriguez (Maradiaga, of Honduras) was mentioned in the previous selection. So you can see how names like these kind of bubble to the top.

Q: What about an American cardinal?

A: I think you can safely bet a month's salary they will not elect a pope from the United States.

Q: Why?

A: Two reasons: One, I think an organization as international as the Catholic Church doesn't want to elect a pope from a superpower country, doesn't want the power of the American presence to be that prominent in the church. Second, I can't think of any (U.S.) cardinal who has the power and gravitas to undertake that job.

Now if you are thinking about someone from North America, that's a different story. (Cardinal) Marc Ouellet is from Quebec. He speaks many languages. He has a very powerful position in Rome as head of the Congregation for Bishops. He's an extremely well-trained theologian and he enjoys the favor of Pope Benedict, who brought him (to Rome). I think he actually comes up on that Irish bookmaker's list as well.

Q: Do you expect a quick election?

A: Under Pope John Paul II, if the cardinals couldn't get a two-thirds majority vote after 13 days, they could elect a compromise candidate who got a simple majority. Pope Benedict changed the rule and now they can only elect someone who gets a two-thirds majority. So it could be a long conclave, but it won't be as long as the one in which they elected poor old Celestine V (in 1294). That conclave lasted nearly two years. Oh yeah. It will happen eventually.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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