Predicting who will be elected the next pope when the College of Cardinals convenes in a papal conclave in early March is far more difficult than predicting the next President. That hasn't stopped American media pundits from speculating that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan's early departure for the Vatican on Wednesday signals that he may be at the front of the line to become the next pontiff.
The process by which the 117 members of the College of Cardinals eligible to participate in the papal conclave (those under the age of 80) elect the leader of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics remains shrouded in mystery. While it is known that the participating cardinals vote in successive rounds of balloting, and that a two-thirds super majority is required to elect the next pope, the content of the internal debates on the merits of the different candidates is kept behind closed doors.
From the moment the 117 cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to begin the papal conclave, the deliberations are unknown to the outside world. The only communications about the proceedings come when the results of each ballot are signaled through the color of smoke emitted from the chapel's chimney. Black smoke means no new pope. White smoke means a new pope has been elected. This is the manner in which the new pope, the apostolic successor of St. Peter, has been selected for centuries.
The last papal conclave was held more than seven years ago in 2005 upon the death of Pope John Paul II. It took two days and four ballots of that papal conclave to elect German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. It marked the first papal conclave in 27 years, since 1978, when the College of Cardinals convened twice.
In August of that year they took two days and four ballots to elect Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I after the death of Pope Paul VI. Then, after Pope John Paul I died a mere 33 days into office, the papal conclave took two days and eight ballots to elect Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II that October.
John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope elected since 1523. His successor, Benedict XVI, a German, was also not Italian. This time around, it seems unlikely that an Italian pope will be elected. Indeed, this may be the first time in over one thousand years that a non-European cardinal will be elected pope. The top contenders come from Africa, North America, and South America.
Most of the recent growth in the Roman Catholic faith has occurred in South America and Africa. North American membership has remained steady, while Europe has declined. One of Pope Benedict XVI's stated goals had been to restore the faith in Europe, but that objective appears to have been a difficult goal at best, especially in light of dramatic increases in secularism, the power of the State, and Islam on that continent.
The African cardinal considered by some to be the leading contender--Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson--may have hurt his chances with recent statements on homosexuality, considered by some to be politically incorrect, as well as a 2009 statement portrayed by some as a display of hubris.
While Latin America is the geographic area with the most practicing Roman Catholics (40%), it is also has a disproportionately low percentage of the members of the College of Cardinals. Only 15 of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for the pope come from South America (13%).
In addition, the chances of the leading Latin American contenders--Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina--are diminished by the prevalence of the left wing "liberation theology" among many Roman Catholic clergy members in Latin America. Cardinals outside of Latin America may be leery that the election of a Latin American pope may lead to the exporting of that theology--considered heretical by many-- to the rest of the world.
Three North American candidates have been mentioned as potential contenders. Canada's Cardinal Marc Oulette is well respected, but his recent speeches have been considered dull. In the United States, Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley is considered a possibility, but the American "rock star" within the Roman Catholic clergy is clearly New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Jovial, intelligent, and camera friendly, Cardinal Dolan acquitted himself well during the recent political battles surrounding Obamacare's infringement on religious liberties. He strongly challenged the Obama administration's regulatory interpretations to force Roman Catholic institutions to cover medical expenses antithetical to Catholic teaching such as abortion and contraceptives. Importantly, he was able to make his case without sounding strident and disrespectful of the traditional American view of the relationship between church and state.
He became the very public voice of religious opposition to elements of Obamacare, but deftly maneuvered the political process so as to be selected by both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2012 as the religious leader to give the benediction at each gathering.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of Dolan's selection as pontiff is that he is uniquely qualified to communicate the message of Roman Catholicism in the highly connected, 24-7 media driven world of the 21st century. More than any of the other contenders, his personality is reminiscent of the energetic, humble, and charismatic John Paul II.
It is unclear if enough of Dolan's fellow cardinals share that view of the church's standing in the world and his suitability for the job to select him as the next pope. Equally unclear is how much Dolan's American citizenship will hurt his chances. Though Dolan's personality on its own does not appear to have created any antipathy among other members of the College of Cardinals, South American and African cardinals may feel it is time for a pontiff from those areas of the world, and European cardinals may agree with them.