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Pope Factor: Who will be the next Pontiff and what will that mean to gay rights?

Place your bets on who will be the next Pope. But more important than the winner is the direction they will take the church, including on LGBT issues
The Apostolic Palace in the Vatican: But who will be the next Pope to take up residence.

Put not your faith in princes nor, if you are looking for anything more than pure flutter on the Papal handicap, bookmakers. For with the starting pistol fired on next month’s papal competition a number of online bookies are already quoting odds on the most ‘papabile’ of a long field of cardinals and also-rans.

By mid-day 11 February, just hours after Benedict XVI announced his shock departure for 28 February, Bet Victor had already chosen its top three. They are Cardinal Peter Turkson (2-1 favorite), Cardinal Marc Ouellet (3-1) and Archbishop Angelo Scuola (5-1).

Paddy Power has Ouellet as favorite (5-2) followed closely by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Peter Turkson. Coral have Cardinal Francis Arinze as front-runner, ahead of Turkson and Ouellet. Finally, YouWin have Turkson out in front, followed by Arinze and Ouellet.

Wow! For a girl who’s made a few hundred here and there by judicious covering of bets (its called arbitraging) this looks like good news, with a few favorites spanning a good range of odds.

In fact, it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, anyone contemplating a bet on who will be sat in the papal chair when the celestial choir music stops and the white smoke finally goes up, will be sorely disappointed. Despite the reams and reams of speculation about to be unleashed by the popular press, I would advise against betting on this race – and that’s not just because betting on the next Pope remains, in theory at least, an excommunicable offence for us Catholics.

No. The real reason is that the College of Cardinals, like the Politburo of old, and the central committee of the Chinese communist party today, moves in mysterious ways. The motives for choosing one candidate over another are often obscure. And, when no single individual has obtained the two-thirds majority required, the cardinal electors start playing Prisoners’ Dilemma, opting for least worst – the candidate who will offend the fewest – rather than command the greatest support.

Nor, even, must they limit their choice to cardinals. But as the reign of Leo X, the last non-priest to be elected Pope back in 1513, ended in allegations of ‘unnatural vice’ – which I suspect decodes to ‘he was gay’ – they may be less eager to repeat that experiment.

It would be the easiest job in the world to fill out this piece with all the reasons why the next Bishop of Rome will not be Cardinal Arinze. For despite being black (a plus with those who consider it is about time) and having worked well alongside Islamic institutions (a coming issue), he is a tad too conservative for the liberal wing of the church and he is getting on (80 last year).

But then I could as easily explain why that last characteristic is one reason why he might be elected. Because at his age he would not be expected to last long and his installment as pope would both satisfy those looking for a token gesture towards the third world, while guaranteeing another pope would be along shortly.

As Arinze, so pretty much every other candidate. Ouellet is a manager and an internationalist and not quite so conservative. Also, he is young, which makes it likely that he would be pope for a long time. All of which are reasons why he is likely to be selected - and why he is not.

So instead of picking candidates – an interesting, but ultimately pointless drinking game – let’s focus on the real questions, which are: what factors are important to the catholic hierarchy now in making this selection; and what will that selection ultimately tell us about the nature of the church.

The biggest challenge facing the church is not – though some might think otherwise – gay marriage, but the rise of the evangelizing religions. Islam to the south, reactionary Russian orthodoxy to the east, and Christian fundamentalism in the US.

These all raise big questions of how the Catholic brand is to compete. Become more fundamentalist? Or shape an alternative agenda that is kinder, more forgiving, more welcoming?

A conservative selection would be sign that the church is going for it: that it means to out-flank the reactionaries on the reactionary side; a less conservative selection might signal the opposite. This underscores why the fashionable view in some parts of the left to condemn the church – or religion – wholesale, feels to be an ultimately futile campaign.

Religion is not going to go away any time soon: and the big battles – across Islam, Judaism, Christianity – are all about whether the liberal or conservative approaches are to prevail. The Catholic Church itself does not oppose homosexuality: it is opposed to gay sexual acts. And while that may feel like a fine and irrelevant distinction in much of the west, in the coming global battles over the rights of LGBT people, it will matter very much whether it is the conservative or liberal wing of the Catholic Church that is in the ascendant.

For while the UN recognized, finally, a few years back that gay rights were also a human right, there was – and is – a significant bloc of countries, including Russia and many Islamic states, opposed utterly to that proposition.

The other question that the church needs to address is that of gay marriage. No: it won’t ever come round to accepting the spiritual validity of such a ceremony - and why should it? There are certain touchstone issues – abortion, adultery (which includes remarriage after divorce) – on which it would take a miracle akin to the second coming before the church re-aligned its doctrine.

But this issue is truly toxic for the Catholic Church, leading it to play real world politics when the conversation it needs to be having is with its own congregations about matters spiritual. Take divorce: this was once the big one – so big that the entirety of the English Church was expelled for taking a line different from that espoused by Rome on the issue.

The Catholic Church does not budge – and yet, it does: and nowadays, while remarriage in church for a divorced couple remains disallowed, it is not running daily campaigns on the topic. Looking ahead, 20, 25 years, the furor over gay marriage will be dead and buried. The church is already moving, slowly, behind the scenes on contraception. The issue of female priesthood is not settled forever. I also suspect that in time the church will come round to recognizing the validity of trans gender identity.

The question is not whether they will get there (I think they will, eventually) but whether they do so politely and in a way that is not a total PR disaster.

Which therefore means that whoever the next Pope turns out to be – front-runner or relative unknown – the real question, to which we will know the answer only next month is: conservative, liberal, or stopgap? How the church answers that will tell us plenty on whether it is ready yet to change – and if so, the pace at which change is likely to come.

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