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Pope's Abdication Puts Church Into Uncharted Territory


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Catholics and the rest of the world are grappling with the implications of Pope Benedict's stunning announcement that he will resign on the evening of February 28th. The abdication is the first in many centuries, and it puts the church in uncharted territory for the first time in modern history.

NPR'S Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. Sylvia, what happens now? Has the process of choosing a new pope already started?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, officially, no. But, obviously, the betting and jockeying for position have started. As soon as that paper resignation goes into effect at 8 PM, Rome time, February 28th, the process will get underway - but with a twist this time. Since the pope has not died, there will not be the official nine days of mourning. So we can presume that the cardinals will be summoned to Rome, and a conclave could start very soon after that.

The Vatican spokesman said a new pope could be elected by Easter. This year, that's on March 31st. The number of cardinals under 80 who are eligible to vote are 117. The largest bloc comes from Europe, with 61. Then there's Latin America with 19, North America 14, Africa and Asia each have 11, and there's one from Oceania. All of them were chosen either Benedict or his predecessor, John Paul II.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, Sylvia, tell me this: We have never had a lame-duck pope looking onto the process from down here. Could he conceivably influence - or how could he not influence the selection?

POGGIOLI: Well, officially, he is going to go - immediately after he resigns, he is going to go away from the Vatican. But it's obvious that - at least indirectly - Benedict is going to be in a position of kingmaker. And, you know, there's going to be some big challenges for the cardinals. They're going to be faced with the perennial dilemma: Do they want a young or a strong pope with the prospect of a long papacy? Or will they opt for an older prelate and a brief and so-called transitional papacy?

And the dilemma's even more pressing, because given the reasons Benedict gave for his resignation - that he's old and does not have the strength to fulfill his mission in this complex, modern world. And that raises a key issue: Can this global organization - the Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion followers - continue to be governed by an absolute monarch? Or is it time for a more collegial management, as it was in the early stages of the church, and as was recommended by the Second Vatican Council? Some analysts say Benedict's resignation has potentially opened the gates for a major overhaul of church governance.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Pope Benedict is notably very conservative, and many of the cardinals that he's appointed are also very conservative. Is there any possibility of a not-like-Benedict caucus developing at the conclave?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think it's going to be very hard, because, as you said, most of the cardinals who were chosen by him share his conservative views, or those of his predecessor, John Paul. But he leaves the church in turmoil. There are sharp divisions between liberals and conservatives over ethical and moral issues and the continuing loss of followers, and there have been all these crises. But the fact is that these cardinals have sworn allegiance and obedience to Benedict, and he's going to be there, whether at a distance or not, and it's going to be very hard, I think, for them to choose someone who would really veer from the conservative views of the current pope.

WERTHEIMER: So are the top contenders already being sort of - lists must be being made among people who know what's going on in the church?

POGGIOLI: Well, when we start talking about papabile, possible popes, there's an expression in Italian that says: He who enters the conclave as a pope, leaves it as a cardinal. But, of course, there are some names of favorites being put forward. And the Italians who dominated the papacy for centuries and were out of the game since 1978 are again quite influential. The top name there is Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan. Another European is Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna. Then there's the Canadian, Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican Department of Bishops. Among the Latin Americans, there's the Brazilian Pedro Odilo Scherer. And there are the long-shots: from Africa, Peter Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican Office for Justice and Peace, and even the American cardinal, Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

WERTHEIMER: What would you say are the odds that a non-European will be chosen?

POGGIOLI: I think the possibilities of the Latin American are very good, and I think, perhaps, the Canadian is good. But I think otherwise, it'll probably be a European.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, reporting from Rome. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.