Rome's Next Choice?

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Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the chief architect of Pope John Paul II's traditionalist moral policy, has long been a bugaboo for liberal Catholics. But they had stopped worrying that the German might one day ascend to St. Peter's throne. His hard-line views and blunt approach had earned him the epithet of panzerkardinal and too many enemies. Well, their worrying may now resume. Sources in Rome tell TIME that Ratzinger has re-emerged as the top papal candidate within the Vatican hierarchy, joining other front runners such as Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan and Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo. "The Ratzinger solution is definitely on," said a well-placed Vatican insider.

There are no immediate signs that John Paul's health has taken a turn for the worse, and he has publicly ruled out becoming the first Pope in eight centuries to retire voluntarily. But as his long papacy grows ever longer, some feel the next conclave will seek a shorter-term "transitional" figure. Ratzinger, 77, may fill that bill. His doctrinaire ways have been tempered of late by a deft and more pragmatic approach to issues such as rising Western secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. During the recent U.S. controversy about giving Communion to pro-choice candidates, Ratzinger authored a careful letter to American bishops reasserting the Vatican's antiabortion stance without dragging the Holy See into election-year theatrics. "There was a stigma," said the Vatican official of Ratzinger. "He rises above that now."

Moreover, John Paul's very public health woes may prompt the Cardinals to push his successor to impose a mechanism to avoid another pontificate slowed by illness. Ratzinger, who has sought ways to adapt church governance for modern times, might be willing to agree to an age limit and pass on the job after a few years.