Pope Benedict XVI caught nearly everyone off guard with his sudden resignation today, but will his surprise departure also manage to shake up the Catholic Church? The answer to that question rests heavily on who his own College of Cardinals chooses to replace him. There are several candidates already being whispered about, and some would appear to be a radical departure for the Church. Yet this new transition may not be the liberal awakening many Church critics—and American pundits—are hoping for.
Trying to analyze the inner workings of the Catholic Church is always a dicey proposition, but one way to gauge what might happen this time around is to look at the last Vatican transition. John Paul II was Pontiff for 26 years, the second longest of any pope since Saint Peter founded the Church, and as a result he oversaw a long period of drama for both Catholics and the world. He was lauded for efforts to reach out to nations and peoples (and even other religions) that had long been ignored. Still, he was naturally quite conservative and when he died, many hoped his successor would be someone that would liberalize the church, possibly even relaxing prohibitions against women and gays in the clergy.
Even then there was growing recognition that the demographics of the Church were changing and it might be wise to pick a new pope who represented that—perhaps someone from Latin America or even Africa. Yet, the College of Cardinals went with Joseph Ratzinger, a German with a controversial past, and with close ties to the previous pope and the central hierarchy in Rome. (Which also included a connection to its most difficult matter at the time, the handling of child sexual abuse.) It was not the choice of a church looking to open up to a more modern world, but a choice that signaled a return to solid Christian values and traditions that some felt had been slipping away.
He had his own idea about reform, but Benedict's reign was just slightly above the average of 7.2 years—hardly enough time to dramatically shift the direction of a 2,000-year-old institution. What's more, the people who will choose Benedict's replacement are either the same people who voted for him eight years ago, or were appointed by him during his reign. More than half of the 118 Cardinals who will participate in the Conclave were appointed by him, and the College of the Cardinals is as Euro-centric as ever. (Possibly more so.) Benedict also changed the rules for the Conclave, returning to the requirement of a two-thirds majority to elect a pope, which is likely to make it hard for outsider to sneak through.
Many of the names being passed about as favorites for the next Pontiff are cardinals from outside of Europe, including Canadian Marc Ouellet and two cardinals from Africa: Peter Turkson of Ghana and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Arinze was considered a leading candidate last time, before the vote went to Ratzinger. He may have come from a developing country, but he is a Vatican insider, having lived and worked there for 25 years and taking Ratzinger's job when he was promoted. If America got its first black president, perhaps the Church is ready for its first black pope. Yet, Arinze is still older than Benedict was when he was elected, possibly more conservative, and basically retired. Hardly the resumé of a reformer.
Another odds-on favorite is Marc Ouellet of Canada, who is also non-European, but speaks six languages and has worked all over the Western Hemisphere. Despite working outside of Rome, however, he's helped guide the Church to where it is today as head of Congregation of Bishops (which decides who become new bishops.) One of these two may very well be the first Pope to be born outside of Europe, but that won't automatically make them a major departure from Church tradition.
And don't discount the Church pulling back toward its roots even further. Benedict and John Paul II were the first non-Italians to get the job in 400 years, and while gambling odds list Ouullet or Arinze as the slight favorites at 3-2 or even 2-1, you might notice any random Italian (at 6-4 odds) is actually the safer play.
The important thing to remember is the wishlists you will be reading over the next month about who the next Pope should be and what he should do, will be coming from commenters who either aren't Catholic or are arguing for the Church to turn into something it doesn't wish to be. It other words, the Church unlikely to listen to Nicholas Kristof or Piers Morgan when picking its next leader.