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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Battle for soul of Church
Peter Gould
By Peter Gould
BBC News, Rome

The conclave to elect a new Pope is shaping up into a real battle.

The cardinals have not cast a single vote yet, but opinions already appear sharply polarised.

Cardinals at the Vatican.
The world will know in a few days who is to be the new pope

Nobody is talking publicly of course, but the Vatican is alive with rumours about election tactics.

On one side are the conservatives, cardinals anxious to defend the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in a secular world.

They believe John Paul II was right not to allow any debate on contentious issues such as contraception, divorce, or the role of women in the Church.

It is a conviction that underlines the authority of the Pope.

Rallying sides

In the other camp are the reformers, liberal-minded cardinals who see nothing wrong in discussing aspects of life where the Church appears out of step with some Catholics.

They want a less centralised Church, with more power being handed over to bishops, allowing them to adapt the teachings and practices of the church to local circumstances.

If they get their way, the papacy will become less powerful. The Pope will guide, rather than govern.

Some Vatican-watchers are convinced that the conclave will begin on Monday with the two sides rallying behind their champions.

The standard bearer for the conservatives is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a man whose job for the past 23 years has been to protect the doctrine of the Church.

St Peter's Square
Some cardinals want a less centralised church

The German cardinal has been accused of stifling dissent. He has been referred to unkindly as "The Pope's Enforcer" and "God's Rottweiler".

Some experts think he is assured of around 50 votes on the first ballot. To be elected, a cardinal needs a two-thirds majority, in other words 77 out of the 115 votes.

As part of a "stop Ratzinger" campaign, some reformist cardinals are said to be planning a symbolic candidacy around Cardinal Carlo Martini, formerly the Archbishop of Milan.

Bridging divide

The Italian is now retired, and is not in the best of health. He is also said not to want the job. But he is revered by the liberal wing of the Church, and could have significant support.

Both men are 78, and would normally be considered too old to be elected.

But after the lengthy papacy of John Paul II, the conclave could opt for a transitional pope, a man who would allow the Church time to reflect on the way ahead.

On the other hand, Cardinal Ratzinger could find himself facing an early challenge from the 71-year-old Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi.

He is regarded as a moderate conservative, who could go some way to bridge the divide between the traditionalists and the progressives.

In any event, with two strong candidates pitched against each other, it may not be possible for either man to gain the two-thirds majority necessary for victory.

That would open the way for a consensus candidate. It was just such a compromise that secured the election of John Paul II in 1978.

Pope John Paul II
The conclave may want a "transitional" pope

So in the end, Ratzinger and Martini may end up being "great electors", the kingmakers whose views help to determine the outcome of the conclave.

They certainly represent two distinctive strands of thought among the cardinals, as they ponder their choice.

All the feverish speculation of the past few days has been reflected in the wildly fluctuating odds being offered by bookmakers.

The bookies claim no inside knowledge; they say they are simply responding to the bets being placed by punters.

A lot of money is now being placed on older cardinals, in line with a theory that says that after a lengthy papacy, the Church would like a Pope who does not live too long.

In any event, the cardinals are now close to the moment when they cast their votes.

On Sunday they are moving into hotel-style accommodation within the Vatican, where they will live until the conclave reaches a decision.

A temporary chimney has now been erected on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, in readiness for the white smoke that will signal the election of the new pontiff.

Will he be a conservative or a reformer? A Pope who guards his powers, or shares them?

In a few days, we should know.




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