With Pope Benedict XVI stepping down to become Joseph Ratiznger, the occasion marks the first pope to resign voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294. The unexpected move means that the papal conclave will have convene in mid-March to elect a new spiritual leader to occupy the Holy See and lead the world’s largest Christian denomination.
Since the Papal Conclave is a secret ballot where only the cardinals of the Catholic Church may cast their votes, the next pope will most likely be a cardinal. Given that the majority of cardinals outside of a Catholic layperson’s diocese are probably unknown, here are the top three of those considered papabali (a term for likely candidate for pope, literally pope-able in Italian) that are considered the frontrunners.
1. Archbishop Angelo Scola (Italy):
The current archbishop of Milan and former patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Scola is an theological titan in today’s Catholicism, having written over 120 works on issues as far ranging from bio-medical ethics to theological anthropology. He is considered one of the powerhouses in the Church hierarchy, having previously been considered papabali during the 2005 papal conclave that saw the election of Benedict XVI.
Although a firm supporter of John Paul II’s Vatican II reforms, he has since developed reservations. He has come out forcefully against same sex marriage, stating at during a lecture at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan that "the family must be founded on a union between a man and a woman, and open to life."
He also has supported increasing ties with Muslim majority nations and increasing the Church’s role in the Middle East. He is the founder of Oasis, a magazine designed for outreach to Christians of all denominations in majority Muslim nations. His election would see a return of an Italian to the Holy See, which had an unbroken string of Italians from 1523 to the election of Karol Wojtyla (a.k.a. John Paul II) in 1978.
2. Cardinal Peter Turkson (Ghana):
The current president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the second most powerful Catholic official in Africa, his election would be an acknowledgement of the growth of the Church in Africa compared to declining numbers in Europe; nearly 6 million of the 15 million new Church members come from Africa. He speaks eight languages and was sent by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to act as a mediator for the crisis on the Ivory Coast.
In 2009, he went on the record to possibly expect an African pope, which some have seen as an indication of his eagerness to wear the papal tiara. He also supports the current papal resistance to contraception, although he has suggested that condoms could be used in certain situations by a married couple. In perhaps a nod to interpretations of scripture that have proven popular in the developing world, he has also gone on the record as a harsh critic of banks and has proposed reforms to the international financial system to avoid global financial crises. He would be the first black pope, but interestingly enough, not the first African pope. There have been 3 popes of supposed African origin; Victor I, Gelasius I, and Miltiades, all from the Roman province of Africa, which roughly corresponds to modern day northern Tunisia and parts of Libya.
3. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (Italy):
The current cardinal secretary of state and Camerlengo, he is both the administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See and in charge of diplomatic and political affairs of the Vatican, making him the second most powerful official in the Vatican besides Pope Benedict XVI. When the Vatileaks scandal broke, it greatly damaged his position, exposing the fractures and rivalries that the Vatican normally keeps away from the eyes of the world.
Bertone has called for "universal and free access drugs to combat HIV" in interviews as recently as 2012, but did not offer similar support for contraception. Back in 2009, he supported the excommunication of all drug dealers. He is opposed to abortion on the grounds of "protecting the dignity of women." He also wants a Vatican soccer team.
Regardless of who wins, the new Pope will have to deal with multiple serious issues such as the continuing fallout from the sexual abuse scandals and competing with the growth of Pentecostalism. It will not be any easy job ... but there seems to be no lack of people who wish to take the job.