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Vatican Talks Allow Would-be Pontiffs to Strut Their Stuff

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GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

Hold on to your hats: A couple of Italian cardinals arrive at the pope's summit

TIME.com: Pope John Paul II is holding an extraordinary gathering of all of his cardinals at the Vatican this week. What is the purpose of their discussion?

Greg Burke: The stated purpose is to hold discussions on the direction of the church in the new Millennium. Obviously, that's hard to do in a three-day session, which is supposed to cover, among other things, inter-religious dialogue, the challenge of sects, and globalization and poverty. But it is really a wide open discussion, in which the cardinals are invited to discuss any issues that concern them. It's really an opportunity for the pope to hear from his cardinals. They can talk about anything, but it's not a Vatican Council. More like some form of a senate, although not in the legislative sense. Think of it as the equivalent of a floor debate in the U.S. Senate.

And of course if you ask what people are reading into the event, it's an opportunity for the cardinals to get to know each other ahead of the time when they'll have to gather to choose a successor to John Paul II.

Presumably, then, it's a very politically charged gatheringů

That's normally the case. They're behind closed doors so that they can speak freely, but at these sorts of events the cardinals tend to be somewhat on their guard. There were rumors today that someone in the meeting had called for a third Vatican Council, but that couldn't be confirmed. That's an issue that periodically resurfaces in Rome.

Is the climate of theological discussion more cautious in light of John Paul II's own conservatism, and also that of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith plays the watchdog of theological orthodoxy?

Yes, and there is some irony there, because in the era of the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger was considered one of the young radicals. But he changed considerably, and in the early days of John Paul II's papacy when there was a campaign against Liberation theology and other progressive theologians, he became known as the "Panzer Cardinal" because he took so many hits for the pope. That's all calmed down now, but Ratzinger showed, in his recent document "Dominus Jesus" that he's still very concerned about anything that waters down the Christian claim or places different religions on an equal footing.

There's still a certain amount of fear, but these days people get away with teaching just about whatever they like. You have to gain a certain amount of notoriety before they take notice. Ratzinger is not a candidate to succeed the pope, by the way. He's considered too conservative.

What considerations will guide the choice of a successor to the pope?

There are a couple of schools of thought there. The first is that it should be an Italian — a theory most widely held by Italians, of course. Once you get over that, it's wide open. But you do need someone with some Roman experience, some idea of how the Vatican works. There was some internal criticism of John Paul II that he didn't do enough minding of the shop, and preferred to be out and about evangelizing. So Roman experience will certainly be considered an important factor. But the choice may also be guided by where the church is growing. In Europe, it's pretty dead, which doesn't bode well for Italians or other Europeans. But there are so many different factors that it's hard to see any clear favorites.

Which candidates dominate the speculation?

Among the Italians, there's a lot of talk about Archbishop Tettamanzi of Genoa. As a moderate conservative, he's considered to be in line with John Paul II. But Milan's more progressive Archbishop Martini is considered to have a chance despite the conservative majority of the College of Cardinals. Even though John Paul II has appointed more than 90 percent of them, they're not clones. But Martini is already 75. Another candidate getting a lot of attention is Vienna's Archbishop Schonborn, who is a great linguist and a very bright guy. But he's not yet 60. And there is a tendency to say that while a pope should not be too old, he shouldn't be too young either. After all, if he's 60, he's going to be around for another 20 years. But it's funny to watch from Rome, because this all happens behind closed doors, so nobody really knows. Frontrunners come and go.