The dangers of a conservative Pope

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As the cardinals of the Catholic Church enter into their Conclave today to choose the successor to Pope John Paul II, there are some certainties. Whoever steps victorious on to the balcony of St Peter's over the next few days will be male and over 60 years old. But other than that, the identity of the next pontiff will remain a mystery until shortly after those white puffs of smoke have appeared above the Sistine Chapel.

As the cardinals of the Catholic Church enter into their Conclave today to choose the successor to Pope John Paul II, there are some certainties. Whoever steps victorious on to the balcony of St Peter's over the next few days will be male and over 60 years old. But other than that, the identity of the next pontiff will remain a mystery until shortly after those white puffs of smoke have appeared above the Sistine Chapel.

It would certainly be in the Catholic Church's broader interest to elect a more liberal thinker than John Paul II. The previous pope might have done wonders for the church's image, thanks to his frequent foreign trips and powerful charisma, but by shutting down all debate on issues such as contraception, divorce and the role of women in the church he set it in ideological aspic. The new pope needs to rediscover the spirit of the reforming Second Vatican Council. Whether the cardinals will be able to resist the influence of the conservative Cardinal Ratzinger, known by some as "God's Rottweiler", will be of fundamental importance over the next few days.

Another challenge to the cardinals will be whether to choose a pope from Latin America or Africa. The rapid growth of the church in the developing world means that many of its followers live in poverty and in countries with poor human rights records. A pope from this part of the world would inevitably be more mindful of the afflictions of much of his flock.

But it is a choice that now lies solely in the hands of 115 cardinals. The new pope, whoever he turns out to be, will have some dauntingly big shoes to fill and some considerable damage to repair.

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