ROME — For the gaggle of reporters who have descended upon Rome over the past two days, the next election of the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be, of course, like no other in anyone's memory. Pope Benedict XVI's surprise abdication on Monday, Feb. 11, means that the electoral conclave -- for the first time since 1415 -- will not follow the death of the preceding pope. This time, it's a rare retirement. The Vatican has said that Benedict's papacy will expire at 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, when a live -- if frail -- ex-pope will leave office and enter an abandoned convent on Vatican City grounds.
The departure leaves a gap for the gathering press corps. The vote to determine Pope Benedict's successor will not be preceded by the usual funeral pomp for a dead Holy Father or emotional calls for his sainthood, as erupted in the wake of the death of Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Still, Benedict's eight-year reign will officially end the same way John Paul II's did: with the smashing of the golden papal ring by a hammer. (Unusually, to say the least, Benedict could have the chance to smash it himself.)
Despite the dramatic changes in the prelude, the election should be familiar to anyone like me who covered the 2005 vote or anyone around when John Paul II was elected in 1978, or his short-lived predecessor, John Paul I, that same year. In the lead-up, there will be plenty of pre-vote rumors, gossip, and predictions of who will win. A sea of red caps and white lace will wash over Vatican City in the form of the 117 electors of the College of Cardinals. The venue for the election, the Sistine Chapel, will be swept for electronic bugging devices so that the deliberations remain secret. In the chapel, the cardinals, under the stern gaze of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, will pledge never to tell anyone what went on.
And within a few days after the conclave is convened, the famous white smoke will pour out of a Vatican chimney, church bells will ring, and an official will stand on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and say, in Latin, "Habemus Papam." We have a pope. And then the world will hear the name of the winner.
I covered the 2005 election for the Washington Post, and I remember it framed as a contest between continuity and change -- a competition that is likely to continue. In 2005, Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) represented continuity to the max. Since 1981, under Pope John Paul II, he had headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a kind of Vatican enforcement office for Catholic dogma. In the waning years of Pope John Paul II's reign, Ratzinger issued astonishingly broad pronouncements on foreign policy, assaults on feminism, and critiques of what he called relativism -- the notion that there is no sure truth but only equally competing and valid points of view. He also had long aligned himself with Pope John Paul II in labeling homosexuality a disorder, opposing women's entrance into the priesthood, focusing on abortion and contraception as key targets of disapproval, and defending the centrality of the Vatican in decision-making for all levels of the church.
Arrayed against him and conservatives like him, I recall, were Catholic leaders who, while not necessarily contesting elements of the established dogma, wanted to shift the focus to justice, peace, and alleviation of poverty. They also wanted a more collegial, even democratic, church, one in which bishops and cardinals and perhaps laymen and women would have more influence on decision-making.
The contest between the John Paul-Benedict era of continuity and something different persists. But while direction and dogma may differ, obstacles unite -- child sex abuse scandals in the church and the difficulties of outreach to other religions, in particular Islam, span the concerns of both sides.
The first challenge for anyone trying to understand where papal candidates stand is trying to figure out who is seriously in the running. On this score, the neophyte reporter in Rome will find a couple of Italian shorthand words useful when perusing newspapers and speaking with supposed experts: papabili and its close cousin, toto-Papa.