Pope's New Cardinals Offer Little Clue on Succession

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Still going strong: John Paul II greets an envoy

Pope John Paul II on Sunday named 39 new cardinals to the body that will ultimately pick his replacement. How do the latest additions affect its political and theological balance?

Politically there's not too much change. But it certainly reflects a geographic shift in the weight of representation by different regions. The new cardinals include 10 from Latin America, eight of whom are currently based there and two who work at the Vatican. That certainly adds to speculation over whether the next pope may come from Latin America, but if you look at the cardinals from that region there's no clear candidate. Still, Latin America made a strong showing, and as things stand right now they'll have about 20 percent of the votes when it comes time to pick a replacement for John Paul II. That's not really surprising, since Latin America already accounts for close to half of the world's Catholics, and the region is seen as crucial to the future of the Catholic Church. Of course the church is very big in Africa, too, but only one of his latest picks came from that continent.

And this is a pope, of course, who substantially changed the character of the church in Latin America during his first decade, diminishing the influence of more liberal- and left-inclined bishops and bolstering the power of those more theologically and politically conservative...

Well, there are two reads on this. Some are inclined to say he stamped his conservative mark on the church in Latin America. But if you look at the bishops and cardinals he has appointed in the region, they are not simply John Paul II clones. He certainly waged a major battle against "liberation theology," and there are no longer bishops or cardinals who are closet Marxists or leaning in that direction. But he's also careful to name people who are socially conscious.

Any indications then on when or whether John Paul II is planning to retire?

The message from the Vatican has always been that the Pope has no plans to retire, and that may not be spin. In his talk yesterday, the pope said there were other men worthy of being made cardinal, and that he hoped to elevate them in the future. To hear the pope say this himself means he plans to be around for at least another three years. And he's even planning new trips. He'll go to the Ukraine in June. So there's little to suggest he has any immediate plans of retirement.

How long his health will hold up is another question. He'll be 81 in May, and he clearly has difficulty speaking sometimes, but that depends on the day and the time of day. At other times, you'll see him still joking with the youngsters. We've been discussing this question in Rome for the past eight years, and he's still going strong.

What's the current speculation on a successor for John Paul II?

People have raised a number of names, but there are no clear candidates. Some have suggested that the Honduran Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez as a possible outsider candidate. Others speak will of the Argentinian Jesuit Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The front-runner among the Italians appears to be the Archbishop of Genoa, Dionigi Tettamanzi. But there's no standout candidate.

When those named on Sunday become cardinals a month from now, John Paul II will have named more than 90 percent of those who choose his successor. They're not clones; they go in and vote their conscience about the man who'll be the best choice to lead the church. So, there's a lot of guessing going on, and no certainty. In Vatican history, there have been times when the successor is clear-cut for years before he is formally chosen, and there have been other times when the papacy appears to be up for grabs. This time, it's totally up for grabs.