Catholic Church

Huge challenges ahead for next pope

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am

The vote for the next pope, which begins at the Vatican today, is steeped in ceremony and tradition. But it will be problems posed by the modern world that will confront whoever emerges as the first new pontiff of the 21st century.

For the next few days, perhaps longer, a Sistine Chapel chimney will be the focus of the world's attention. When black smoke appears, it means the 115 cardinals who pick the pope are yet to reach a decision. But if the smoke is white, a new leader of the Catholic Church has been elected.

All the electors have been appointed by previous popes - most of them by Pope John Paul II. But the process by which they choose the new pontiff is direct and democratic.

Each cardinal makes his choice. The ballots are then counted. A new pope is declared if one of the cardinals has won at least 77 votes. New rules allow for a simple majority to decide the issue if the process drags on for more than 12 days.

This time, the candidates have more of an international composition than in the past. This is, in part, a reflection of the growth of the Catholic Church in the developing world.

Among those tipped as contenders are cardinals from Africa, Asia and South America. Few would, however, rule out the chances of the Italians. Until the election of Polish John Paul in 1978, Italy provided every pope for more than 400 years.

The decision could have important repercussions that stretch beyond the confines of the Catholic Church and its one billion members.

Cardinals from the developing world tend to have different priorities to their counterparts in Europe. The need to combat poverty is high up on their list. Another problem faced by the new pope will be how to reverse the relative decline of the Church's influence in the west. There will be a need to confront difficult social and moral issues, including whether to allow women to be ordained as priests and the approach of the Church to abortion, homosexuality and biotechnology.

There are some liberals among the cardinals in contention. But a conservative pope, who will follow the strictures of John Paul, is a more likely outcome.

It is to be hoped that whoever is elected will continue his predecessor's policy of reaching out to other faiths - especially Islam.

The highly secretive nature of the election process makes the result impossible to predict. The deeply conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is regarded as a frontrunner. But there is a saying that whoever enters the conclave as a pope leaves as a cardinal. Vatican-watching - rather like old-fashioned China-watching - will begin in earnest today.

The new pope, whoever it may be, will face a huge task in both living up to the reputation of his predecessor - and tackling the many problems facing the Church today.