White Smoke

An insider's guide to choosing the new pope.

Arturo Mari - Vatican Pool/ Getty Images
Arturo Mari - Vatican Pool/ Getty Images

ROME — For the gaggle of reporters who have descended upon Rome over the past two days, the next election of the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be, of course, like no other in anyone’s memory. Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise abdication on Monday, Feb. 11, means that the electoral conclave — for the first time since 1415 — will not follow the death of the preceding pope. This time, it’s a rare retirement. The Vatican has said that Benedict’s papacy will expire at 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, when a live — if frail — ex-pope will leave office and enter an abandoned convent on Vatican City grounds.

The departure leaves a gap for the gathering press corps. The vote to determine Pope Benedict’s successor will not be preceded by the usual funeral pomp for a dead Holy Father or emotional calls for his sainthood, as erupted in the wake of the death of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Still, Benedict’s eight-year reign will officially end the same way John Paul II’s did: with the smashing of the golden papal ring by a hammer. (Unusually, to say the least, Benedict could have the chance to smash it himself.)

Despite the dramatic changes in the prelude, the election should be familiar to anyone like me who covered the 2005 vote or anyone around when John Paul II was elected in 1978, or his short-lived predecessor, John Paul I, that same year. In the lead-up, there will be plenty of pre-vote rumors, gossip, and predictions of who will win. A sea of red caps and white lace will wash over Vatican City in the form of the 117 electors of the College of Cardinals. The venue for the election, the Sistine Chapel, will be swept for electronic bugging devices so that the deliberations remain secret. In the chapel, the cardinals, under the stern gaze of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, will pledge never to tell anyone what went on.

And within a few days after the conclave is convened, the famous white smoke will pour out of a Vatican chimney, church bells will ring, and an official will stand on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and say, in Latin, "Habemus Papam." We have a pope. And then the world will hear the name of the winner.

I covered the 2005 election for the Washington Post, and I remember it framed as a contest between continuity and change — a competition that is likely to continue. In 2005, Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) represented continuity to the max. Since 1981, under Pope John Paul II, he had headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a kind of Vatican enforcement office for Catholic dogma. In the waning years of Pope John Paul II’s reign, Ratzinger issued astonishingly broad pronouncements on foreign policy, assaults on feminism, and critiques of what he called relativism — the notion that there is no sure truth but only equally competing and valid points of view. He also had long aligned himself with Pope John Paul II in labeling homosexuality a disorder, opposing women’s entrance into the priesthood, focusing on abortion and contraception as key targets of disapproval, and defending the centrality of the Vatican in decision-making for all levels of the church.

Arrayed against him and conservatives like him, I recall, were Catholic leaders who, while not necessarily contesting elements of the established dogma, wanted to shift the focus to justice, peace, and alleviation of poverty. They also wanted a more collegial, even democratic, church, one in which bishops and cardinals and perhaps laymen and women would have more influence on decision-making.

The contest between the John Paul-Benedict era of continuity and something different persists. But while direction and dogma may differ, obstacles unite — child sex abuse scandals in the church and the difficulties of outreach to other religions, in particular Islam, span the concerns of both sides.

The first challenge for anyone trying to understand where papal candidates stand is trying to figure out who is seriously in the running. On this score, the neophyte reporter in Rome will find a couple of Italian shorthand words useful when perusing newspapers and speaking with supposed experts: papabili and its close cousin, toto-Papa.

The papabili are cardinals believed to be viable candidates. Toto-Papa, or "pope-betting," is the game played by Vatican watchers to handicap the favorites. It’s a game hardly any observer wins, mostly because the information about how the vote will go is 90 percent guesswork. If by chance one gets to ask a cardinal whom he favors, he will answer (if he answers at all), "The Holy Spirit will let me know."

That doesn’t stop every outsider, expert or otherwise, from having an opinion.

When I covered the last election, the Post asked me to list some papabili for a preview article; I put down three from Latin America, an African, a pair of Italians, an Austrian, and an Asian. The morning before the article went to press, I woke up with a revelation: What about Ratzinger, then 78, who had played a powerful role behind the scenes of John Paul II’s papacy?

Several Vatican watchers had warned me off him — too old and crotchety, they said. Yet, a few months earlier, I myself had described him in an article as a "strong candidate." Oh, well. I decided to erase the Asian and insert Ratzinger. The last-minute bet (courtesy of the Holy Spirit?) saved me from some embarrassment: Ratzinger became pope.

Good luck in compiling a viable toto-Papa list this time around, given the number of names bandied about. But the editors will require it, so let’s give it a shot.

Geography is a good place to start. Since John Paul II’s election — the first non-Italian pope for several centuries — geographical factors frequently dominate the papabili guessing game. This year, Latin Americans are again considered strong possibilities. The continent is home to half the world’s Catholics.

In matters of policy, however, a Latin American selection might herald a shift in direction from concern with doctrine toward social issues and poverty. Among the Latin American papabili are cardinals from two megalopolises: Norberto Carrera Rivera, 62, from Mexico City, and Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, from Sao Paulo. Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 70, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is also in the running; his city and country are overrun with poverty and high crime. Another Latin American candidate, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Buenos Aires is considered more in line with the ultraconservative leanings of Pope Benedict XVI than with the cause of social justice.

Europe could produce a winner, given the number of Europeans in the conclave (61) and tradition (no pope has come from outside the continent since Gregory III, a Syrian, in 731). That revives the chances of Christoph Schönborn, 68, archbishop of Vienna, who some may see as a plus because he oversaw a cleanup of the church in Austria after pedophile scandals. He was a mentioned candidate in 2005. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran’s name is also making the rounds, partly because he heads the Vatican department in charge of relations with other religions — an important post in today’s conflicted world of religious rivalries. But, at 69 years old, he suffers from early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and the cardinals may not want to put someone with a known health problem in place after a pope just quit over declining health.

Italy possesses 28 voters in the conclave, and if they stick together, that’s a formidable bloc. Italians produced popes for 455 years before the election of John Paul II, and they might be eager for a return to the historical norm. The name bouncing around now is Angelo Scola, 71, archbishop of Milan and a Benedict confidant. Being in charge of a big diocese gives him street cred among voters who want someone experienced in the nitty-gritty of local affairs and who also favors papal supremacy and a continuation of Benedict’s conservative outlook.

It’s become fashionable for Africa to get a mention. One African so far has entered the list of papabili: Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson, 64, from Ghana, though he may have eliminated himself when he presided over the screening last year of a controversial video suggesting Muslims were soon to take over Europe through demographics.

Finally, unlike last time, North Americans are getting mentioned, notably Timothy Dolan, 63, archbishop of New York. Don’t bet on it. The world’s only superpower is not going to get a pope. (Spoiler alert for Americans focused on hot-button social issues: You’re not about to get a pontiff who tolerates abortion, homosexuality, or euthanasia for people who want to end suffering in old age. Radio reporters calling from the United States were somehow shocked when I told them that in 2005, but that’s the way it was then and still is now.)

However, America’s northern neighbor might conceivably produce a pope: Marc Ouellet, 68, head of the Vatican’s department of bishops, a conservative ally of Pope Benedict, and former archbishop of Quebec City.

With luck, this year’s reporters and commentators will get a closer look at the potential candidates and their thoughts than we did, back in 2005. After Pope John Paul II’s funeral, I had looked forward to the novemdiales, a nine-day period before the conclave during which the cardinals are traditionally free to wander Rome and speak with whomever they want. It was a chance to hear what ideas would dominate the conclave itself.

It was not to be.

Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over preparations for the conclave. On April 9, a day after the funeral, the Vatican announced a news blackout. Ratzinger had persuaded everyone to stop talking, cardinals quietly told me: no interviews, no open discussion of pre-conclave meetings — no nothing except homilies at masses celebrating the virtues of John Paul II.

The prohibition left the public stage to Ratzinger himself. On the morning the conclave opened, he delivered a sermon to the cardinals that amounted to a combination keynote and self-advertisement. In it, he warned of a "dictatorship of relativism … that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s own ego and one’s own desires as the final measure." He added that the church must withstand "tides of trends and the latest novelties." Some saw the speech as a fortification of true faith; others as a clear effort to stifle debate. Ratzinger won in the second ballot and was confirmed by acclamation.

In any case, I’m guessing there is probably one elector whom I interviewed before the 2005 blackout who will be giving no interviews this time: Cardinal Roger Mahony, 76, ex-archbishop of Los Angeles, who is beset by new revelations that he hid incidents of priestly child abuse from the police. Questions about pedophilia alone might scare the Vatican from letting the cardinals spout off too much.

At the end of this month, Ratzinger will disappear into Castel Gandolfo, on a lake near Rome, implicitly taking with him any possible influence on the forthcoming election. But his shadow will stretch all the way to the Sistine Chapel; he appointed just over half the cardinals who will elect his successor. And he wouldn’t have picked them if they didn’t agree with him in some measure.

But let’s hope the cardinals open their thinking to the journalists waiting at St. Peter’s and to the world. If they do, it’ll tell us at least one thing for sure: that Ratzinger’s influence is quickly waning and the race is wide open.

<p> Daniel Williams was a correspondent for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2006. </p>