Cardinals ready to do battle for the soul of the Catholic Church

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Crucial changes to the rules of succession - made by John Paul II himself in 1996 - could ensure that the next Pope is also a doctrinal conservative. But they could also open the door for a Third World pontiff at the next conclave, Vatican-watchers say.

During his long pontificate John Paul II packed the College of Cardinals with churchmen who, like him, are unbending on moral issues such as contraception, women priests and priestly celibacy. This militates against the surprise selection of a liberal pope by the 117 "Princes of the Church" who are under 80 and therefore eligible to elect the next leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Vatican sources say.

However, reformists in the College of Cardinals nourish hopes of frustrating plans by conservatives to elect the Italian favourite, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, who is said to be backed by the secretive, elitist Opus Dei movement. Liberals, though in a minority, could block Cardinal Tettamanzi simply by joining forces with African and other Third World cardinals to try and elect Francis Arinze of Nigeria, who, though deeply conservative on moral issues, would be a significant innovation as the first modern black Pope. He also has an impressive track record of progressive dialogue with Islam.

The main "Grand Elector" plotting the Italian cardinals' strategy at the conclave will be Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the ultra-right Vatican Secretary of State. Cardinal Sodano is reviled by church liberals for his background as papal nuncio in Chile, where he reputedly turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by the Pinochet regime or effectively encouraged them in anti-Communism.

But Cardinal Sodano's close contacts with Latin American conservatives could be crucial in ensuring that a conservative is elected if no Italian candidate wins outright in the first 13 days of a conclave because of combined liberal and Third World support for Cardinal Arinze.

Under the new rules introduced on 22 February 1996, a Pope may be elected after 13 days by a simple majority of half plus one, rather than a two-thirds majority as was required in previous conclaves, such as the one that elected Karol Wojtyla in 1978.

"At that point Sodano may decide that the only way to ensure the next Pope is a conservative is to support a Third World candidate from Latin America who is also acceptable, like Tettamanzi, to Opus Dei," said one Western ambassador to the Holy See.

Against this background of wheeling and dealing, the battle for control of the church is likely to swing in favour of a Latin American cardinal such as the telegenic Honduran prelate Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is admired for his mix of insider connections and support for the underprivileged.

Cardinal Rodriguez, formerly head of the Latin American Bishops group, is a strong opponent of Third World debt and a supporter of decentralisation.