Determining the top candidates for papacy

[Editor’s Note: This is a revised and updated version of the story that originally appeared in July 2012.]

The announcement of the planned resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28 sparked immediate worldwide interest in the impending conclave to choose his successor. The gathering of the world’s cardinal electors – those members of the College of Cardinals under the age of 80 – in the Sistine Chapel is reportedly scheduled to commence on March 16.


Attention has naturally focused on the so-called papabili, those cardinals seen to be the strongest candidates to become pope.

Cardinal electors

As of a likely conclave in the middle of March, there will be 117 Cardinal from 50 countries who will be eligible to vote, the so-called cardinal electors. The largest voting groups are from Italy, with 28 electors, the United States with 11, Brazil and Germany with six each and Spain with five. In all, Europe will have 61 electors, or more than half of the total, and North and South America have another 33. The remaining cardinals from Africa, Asia and Oceania will bring only 23 votes combined.

The cardinals from a region or country, of course, do not necessarily vote as a bloc. This is especially true of the Italians, who are often divided among their preferred candidates.

Perhaps even more important than the numbers is the new membership since the last conclave. After seven years, Pope Benedict has appointed the majority of cardinal electors (67 in all), which represents a very significant change in the composition of the College of Cardinals since 2005. Among the largest group of electors, the Italians, 21 of the 28 electors have been appointed since 2006. Likewise, among the Americans eight of the 11 electors are new.

The votes in any conclave reflect two major concerns on the part of the cardinals. First, there are the pressing issues facing the Church, and second, there is the task of finding the candidate who is the most qualified to deal with them.

Current favorites

So, who are the current favorites? Three names are most prominent: Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa.

Cardinal Scola, 71, is highly esteemed by the pontiff, who moved him from the Patriarchate of Venice to Milan, one of the largest and most important sees in Europe. He is a brilliant, if at times recondite, theologian, a major supporter of the New Evangelization and a leader in Catholic-Islamic dialogue. His election could be hampered by internal divisions among the Italian cardinals.

Cardinal Ouellet, 68, is a Sulpician and served as archbishop of Quebec from 2002 to 2010 before taking over as head of the powerful Vatican office that oversees the appointment of the world’s bishops. Critics point to the lamentable state of the Church in Quebec during his tenure and wonder if he would be able to reinvigorate the faith in the West.

Cardinal Bagnasco, 70, is very well known among the Italian and European Cardinals and has a reputation for intellectual heft. He is also president of the influential Italian Bishops’ Conference.

Other players

The remaining papabili include: Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague; Cardinal Peter Erdő, archbishop of Budapest; Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil; Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and former archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana; and two Americans, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.

Cardinal Duka, 69, endured persecution under the communists in the one-time Czechoslovakia and is an ardent supporter of the New Evangelization.

A Hungarian, Cardinal Erdő, 60, is familiar to the European cardinals as he has been elected twice the president of the European Bishops’ Conference.

Cardinal Scherer, 63, would be the first pope from the New World, but like Canada, Brazil’s Catholic community faces many challenges, and his record in São Paulo is mixed.

Cardinal Ravasi, 70, is ranked among the great minds in the contemporary Church and is an advocate of dialogue with modernity, but he may be too intellectual and may not be the kind of reformer that the Roman Curia needs.

A Spaniard, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, 67, has considerable academic credentials and both pastoral and Vatican experience as he was archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain from 2002 to 2008 before moving to the Vatican to oversee the Church’s liturgical life.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, 64, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is a biblical scholar and former archbishop in Ghana, speaks six languages and also knows Latin and Greek. He has also caused controversies in the past few years with some of his comments, especially about the growth of Islam and the need for a central world bank.

Cardinal Wuerl, 72, suffers from the deficit of being an American and hence a cardinal from the world’s only superpower, but he has the skill in languages and the long experience of being a superb teacher and pastor; he also has a sterling record in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis.

Key to deliberations

Finally, there is Cardinal Dolan, 63, who is well-regarded in Rome and is recognized across the world as head of the New York archdiocese and as one of the most dynamic voices for the Church in today’s media-driven world.

Cardinal Dolan is also someone who will be a figure in the deliberations, especially as a consensus builder. In 1978, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia and Cardinal Franz König of Vienna were instrumental in helping the cardinals to envision the first non-Italian cardinal in 455 years: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, John Paul II. Similarly, in 2005, the cardinal vicar of Rome, Camillo Ruini, was a strong advocate for the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In the end, there is a factor more profound than any of the papabili or influential cardinals. That is the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and safeguarding the Church. The 2,000-year history of the Church, not to mention papal elections, provides ample testimony to that.

Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Answer.