Pope's 'enforcer' heads field as election begins

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The Independent Online

The most extraordinary election in the world begins this afternoon, when the cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic Church file into the Sistine Chapel and there, before Michelangelo's startlingly fleshy fresco of the Day of Judgement, begin the task of choosing the next pope.

The most extraordinary election in the world begins this afternoon, when the cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic Church file into the Sistine Chapel and there, before Michelangelo's startlingly fleshy fresco of the Day of Judgement, begin the task of choosing the next pope.

The favourite to win is Joseph Ratzinger, 78, the late Pope's personal theologian, the massively orthodox heir to the Inquisition and "enforcer of the faith" who has been fighting to rid the church of all the "heretics" let in by the liberalism of the Vatican's Second Council.

He is believed to have obtained the pledges of between 35 and 50 electors, which puts him at best 27 votes short of outright victory. But favourites rarely become pope - it has only happened a dozen times in nearly 300 conclaves - and the race is wide open.

About 20 cardinals have been discussed as papabile, literally "pope-able", and the fact that new names arrived on the long-list even over the weekend shows that to date, many cardinals haven't a clue.

Traditionally a candidate must obtain the votes of two-thirds of the cardinals to win. But a controversial change made by John Paul means that if there is still no pope after about 33 ballots, a simple majority will be enough to clinch it.

This was intended to prevent conclaves going on too long, but it could have the opposite effect: if a bare majority of cardinals backed one particular candidate, they could refuse to budge and then vote their man in when the rule changes.

For believers, the conclave's point is that it is not the cardinals who decide but the Holy Spirit, acting through them. To allow the Holy Spirit maximum play in the proceedings, therefore, the cardinals are required to insulate themselves totally from the outside world. Those with whom they may come into casual contact, including cooks and chambermaids, have been sworn to silence. Anyone breaking the rule risks excommunication. Apart from the question of allowing the Holy Ghost free reign, the other reason for secrecy is so that the new pope can be presented as enjoying the support of all those in the conclave - a polite fiction intended to keep the church united.

As a result of all this secrecy, not even the Vaticanisti, the Vatican-watchers who have been anticipating this event for years, can predict the winner with any confidence. Ratzinger is a highly divisive figure, and there are many on the progressive wing who are determined to stop him. But a single figure around whom the opposition could unite has yet to emerge.

Indeed that is the purpose of the conclave's many rounds of voting. In the first round - likely to be held this afternoon, though it could be delayed until tomorrow - Ratzinger's name is likely to be found alongside five or six other candidates. Then the quiet, genteel, Holy Ghost-directed horse trading gets under way, as the identity of the single candidate whom two-thirds of cardinals persuade themselves - perhaps at the far edge of desperation - that they can support is ballot by ballot revealed.

When that happens - which is unlikely to be before Wednesday - white smoke will issue from the Sistine Chapel's chimney, and bells will peal to erase any doubt.

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