Conservative emerges as favourite for papacy

As the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church go into their secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow to elect the next Pope, there is only one name on everybody's lips: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Last week, Italian Vatican-watchers said they believed the German cardinal, who turned 79 yesterday, had already obtained the pledges of 40 to 50 cardinals for the secret voting. If the latter figure is right, he would need only another 27 to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority.

Many other cardinals are described as "papabile", literally "popeable", but no single name has yet to emerge as a plausible rival. Yet Cardinal Ratzinger, who was the late Pope's personal theologian and for many years headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the successor to the medieval Inquisition - is the single most polarising figure in the church today. As one Italian commentator put it, "he represents all the conservatism of John Paul II with none of his spontaneity".

The Cardinal, a Bavarian who as a child was a member of the Hitler Youth, enjoys several unflattering nicknames including "Panzer cardinal" and "enforcer of the faith".

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he became notorious for his readiness to boot liberal theologians out of their university posts and, if necessary, right out of the church.

His high-handedness has left the relationship between theologians at the centre, who lay down the law, and those on the outside who may have different ideas "worse today than at any time since the Reformation," according to Thomas Reese, a prominent American Vatican expert.

John Allen, author of a biography of Cardinal Ratzinger, says that "rumblings of schism during the Ratzinger years have become persistent."

The reasons why he has become, despite his host of enemies, the only horse in the race so far are not hard to find.

One of his present jobs within the Curia, the church's ruling body, is Dean of the College of Cardinals. He is the official who has been making sure that all the cardinals are in Rome for the conclave, and who has been in charge of their formal morning meetings. Given this job, he is one of the few people who knows everyone personally, a prime asset in dealing with cardinals from Thailand to Chile, from Angola to Belarus, and whose prior dealings with each other may have been minimal or non-existent.

Given his proximity to the late Pope, he is also a figure of unimpeachable authority. He skilfully reinforced this authority when he preached an emotional and well-received sermon at Pope John Paul II's funeral, which managed to convey the pontiff's brilliance and holiness while avoiding any mention of matters that would have embarrassed guests like President Bush - the Pope's fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, for example.

Karol Wojtyla never hesitated to challenge the mighty of the world when he believed principles were at stake. Joseph Ratzinger has shown zeal and ruthlessness in going after those in weaker positions than himself, but has none of the late Pope's track record in standing up to authority.

On the contrary, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who persuaded the Pope that Latin America's "liberation theology", in which many priests challenged the brutal autocrats in power, should be emasculated and closed down, leaving a legacy of bitterness and a lasting sense of betrayal.

The Cardinal has also improved his chances of winning over waverers among the cardinals by preventing a public airing of the issues that will guide their voting. After the deaths of previous popes, many cardinals addressed press conferences or had quiet chats with journalists, as a way to bring the great body of believers into their debates.

This time, despite the dissent of several cardinals and the anger of Vatican-watchers, Cardinal Ratzinger enforced a ban on such discussions which has proved remarkably effective, leaving Vatican-watchers in the Italian press having less and less to get their teeth into.

The fruit of this repressive handiwork is that Cardinal Ratzinger is now the single candidate that no one can afford not to take seriously.

He was not even included in many lists of "popeables" during the Pope's last days. His age and weak heart were cited as reasons why he was more likely to be a vital pope-maker than a candidate.

But now even those factors are spoken of in his favour. Who wants another papacy that would, like John Paul's, go on for 26 years, people ask.

What is required is a safe pair of hands, a trusty, transitional figure. Yet for those on the liberal wing of the church, no prospect could be more chilling than the crowning of Pope Ratzinger.