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Amid speculation, experts agree there's no way to guess next pope

VATICAN CITY—The super-secret conclave to elect a new pope won't open at the Vatican for another week, but here's a hot tip on who will win: an older man who speaks several languages and uses all of them to vigorously defend the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

You can bet on that, although not in Las Vegas. Bookmakers there say it's a little tacky, as well as nearly impossible, to place bets on popes-to-be.

"The honest answer to who's going to win is: Nobody has a clue," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, the editor of America magazine and a top Vatican watcher. "And, among this group, whoever is elected, we're not going to see radical changes."

John Allen, the Rome bureau chief for the National Catholic Reporter and the leading American expert on Vatican politics at the moment, concurred with Reese that no big changes are in store on such hot-button issues as abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia.

The cardinals are "all pretty much in agreement about that," Allen said. Though subtle changes always emerge from conclaves, "a new pope elected on Tuesday isn't going to ordain women on Wednesday," he said.

Nevertheless, elections inevitably bring politicking, and by Friday there were signs that the cardinals were worried that things could get out of hand. The campaigning is so subtle that candidates aren't even confirming that they're interested in the job, but a number of cardinals have found their way into the media spotlight.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Thursday that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who served as Pope John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog and celebrated Friday's funeral Mass, had asked cardinals to stop talking to reporters. The newspaper indicated that some cardinals had complained that some of their colleagues might benefit too much from the media exposure.

On Friday, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida said he and the other Americans had agreed to stop giving interviews before the conclave's scheduled start April 18.

"I don't know what other cardinals will do," Maida said, "but the American cardinals won't be talking." The Americans agreed to the period of silence, he said, to "remove all the distractions."

Now the maneuvering shifts to an off-the-record buzz among the men in red hats as they chat quietly over pasta and wine in dining venues around town. Along the way, a handful of well-connected reporters may catch a few whispers.

"The Italian press has the most contacts," Reese said. "Soon, there'll be so many spin doctors that it'll be tough to distinguish what's pure spin from what's reality."

Talking about the next papacy is natural for Catholics, said the Rev. Mark Henninger, a rector of the Jesuit priests at the University of Detroit Mercy from 1988 to 2004. Henninger now teaches at the Gregorian University in Rome, and he said his students enjoyed trying to divine the politics of papal succession.

"Personally, I'd like to have someone from outside of Europe for a change of pace," Henninger said last week. "A good Latin American, perhaps—because the largest percentage of Catholics are Spanish-speaking—and someone who has worked for the poor."

Reese said casual observers might be distracted by small distinctions among the cardinals, such as the range in their formal titles from cardinal bishop to cardinal deacon. The titles reflect ancient conventions in naming princes of the church, but are meaningless at this point, Reese said.

"The bottom line is that, once a pope dies, all the cardinals are equal," he said.

Of much more importance are issues such as the proper relationship between leaders in the church hierarchy, Reese said.

Pope John Paul's 26-year reign drew more and more authority to his Vatican staff, referred to as the Curia, with each passing decade. Now many cardinals are eager for some of that authority to flow back to them.

"The code word they use to describe this idea is `collegiality,' which means they want less power in the Roman Curia and more power going to bishops," Reese said. "Remember that most of the cardinals work outside of Rome, so even the conservative cardinals don't want someone at the Vatican second-guessing them all the time. This is going to be a big question in the conclave."

If the idea of softening Vatican oversight prevails, that's bad news for frequently mentioned papal front-runners such as Ratzinger, a German who became the most famous public figure in John Paul's Curia, or the popular Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re or the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. Re and Arinze have worked at the Vatican for many years.

The only cardinals who seem to be out of the running are the 11 Americans. Catholic leaders repeatedly have said they want to retain their church's independent voice on global issues by making sure that the next pope doesn't come from the world's one remaining superpower.

Allen and Reese also pointed out that the Americans generally have less global experience and facility with languages than top papal candidates do. Many of the non-American cardinals command a half-dozen languages.

The media feeding frenzy around the Vatican already is producing real or perceived movement in the pack of top cardinals.

For instance, the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn—often listed among the church's rising young stars—seems to be falling out of the pack. Repeated references in news reports from around the world stress that, at age 60, he may be too young.

The whole field of candidates—more than 100 men whose backgrounds often are difficult to uncover—is enough to make even a Las Vegas bookmaker toss in the cards.

That's the opinion of Johnny Avello, Las Vegas' top expert in what gamblers call exotic odds—non-sports contests such as the Oscar awards or the outcome of reality TV shows.

After Irish bookmakers recently set odds on the papal candidates, Avello said, "I've got so many calls on making odds on this, I can't tell you how many. But I'm going to stay away."

One Irish bookmaker, called Paddy Power, had Arinze as the leading candidate Friday.

But the papacy is one tough race to call, Avello said. First, there are too many obscure figures in the field to get a proper handle on a winner. "Nobody knows who all those people are," he said.

Plus, the issue "is just too sensitive," said Avello, an Italian-American Catholic. "It's not something you can have fun with."

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(Montemurri reported from Rome, Crumm from Detroit. Both report for the Detroit Free Press.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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