The faithful knew Benedict was not going to be a long-term leader. For some time, the talk has been that the Catholic cardinals would be wise to choose a pontiff who reflects the areas where the church is growing, i.e. South America or Africa. In the spirit of handicapping elections, I would argue that region or race will not be the only deciding factor in choosing the next Pope.
The Catholic Church understands that it has to tackle theology on two separate planes. On one hand, there is the Church’s relationship with the people. This means addressing scandals and lawsuits, not to mention a potential financial crisis that could be bubbling up.
Then there is catechism, or the theological direction. Does the Church want to address war and peace? Does it want to separate from politics the way John Paul II suggested? Does it want to take a stand on social issues, like same sex marriage? Being Pope is a little more complicated today than it was the last time a Pope gave his two-weeks notice.
The Church needs to balance those two important directions in order to remain relevant and visible: relationship building and theology.
There are two frontrunners being considered by the Vatican cardinals to be the next Pope. The smart money would be on Cardinal Peter Turkson, originally from Ghana. Turkson stands out as an African cardinal, but he is a big favorite because he is a young, socially active cardinal.
In 2008, as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he inked a document that suggested that tougher world financial regulations were in order to make economics and trade fair. He brought the Catholic Church into the debate about financial regulation.
He is also a relatively young cardinal at 64. As a Pope, he could dig in and forge a direction for a long time. His coming from a country that has experienced its share of strife is another plus, as he cannot be painted as an ivory tower priest. Add to all of this the fact that he shares a good relationship with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Second to Turkson would be Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who was dubbed in September by John L. Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter as the “most interesting man in the Catholic church.”
Ravasi is the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and is a scholarly cardinal, often quoting literature. What is also important here is that Ravasi has spent considerable time in Middle Eastern countries doing research. Let’s face it, the Middle East is an active part of the world, and if the next Pope wants to be a voice for peace, this is important.
Ravasi also does not see science as opposed to faith, which may be a good fit with modernity. If the Church is desperate to return to the rock star days of John Paul II, it may lean toward Ravasi.
The Catholic Church enters its next stage as one of only a few religions that has not lost membership in the United States in recent decades. Catholics have maintained their presence (although without much increase), due in large part to immigration from Latin American countries.
The next Pope has to keep the Church current as it relates to the people, and he has to decide how it is going to express scripture. These are complicated times. There is war and the threat of more war. Will the next Pope be a voice for peace? Will keeping Catholic schools open in the United States be on the agenda? Most western countries are in difficult economic times. Will the next Pope take a stance on economic policy?
These are the types of questions that the Vatican cardinals will bounce around when they elect a new leader of the Catholic Church.