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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- Who will be the next pope? The answer is easy. Whomever Cardinal Ratzinger wants. The job is his if he wants it, but the spirit might move him to raise his thumb for some other man to run the Roman Catholic Church.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, from Germany, is the most powerful figure in the church. As dean of the College of Cardinals and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, he has enormous influence and he's not shy about using it. He is a brilliant theologian with a charming personality who uses his disarming wit to make people at ease in his presence.

He's also the supreme Vatican insider who knows how to use power to crush dissent, debate and even questions that challenge his strong views. He's known to be petty and vindictive as the church's chief doctrine enforcer, tracking down speculative theologians, forbidding them from thinking out loud, banning their books and summoning them to Rome for brutal intellectual inquisitions.

Ratzinger eschews collegiality -- the principle enunciated at the Second Vatican Council calling for decentralization of Vatican power and granting more independence for local dioceses, national conferences of bishops and synods of bishops. Ratzinger prefers authoritarianism, and hamhanded discipline, traits nurtured in his native Bavaria.

He would like altars in churches turned away from the people as in pre-Vatican II days and he'd like to see some Latin returned to the Mass. The words of consecration recited in Latin would bring a wonderful universality and a greater sense of mystery and the eternal to the celebration.

Let's bring back some of the beautiful Latin hymns into the liturgy, and incense, too. Smells and bells and tradition bring richness to the ritual. Old Joe and I do agree on a few things, but in many areas we're from different planets.

Ratzinger, who is a member of the Augustinian religious order, shares many of St. Augustine's views on human sexuality. While one of the greatest thinkers ever, Augustine did have some pretty repressive views on sex, probably stemming form his own wild youth. The Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, believed sex was an essentially sinful degradation and people were better off living in celibacy, the only road to holiness. He acknowledged sex acts were needed for procreation, but partners who did it for pleasure were doomed to damnation.

Ratzinger has condemned homosexuality as "intrinsically evil" and he views homosexual love as an "objective disorder." I'd like to ask the cardinal how our God, who is all-loving and good, could create people whose nature is "intrinsically evil."

Pope John Paul wrote a poem urging the cardinals who will meet in the Sistine Chapel to elect his successor to look at Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment for inspiration. "Michelangelo's vision must speak to them," John Paul wrote in a poetic meditation he penned in 2002. The huge fresco on the wall behind the altar depicts a muscular Christ surrounded by naked people rising to heaven and falling into hell. "Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrusted gather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistine colors, by the vision left us by Michelangelo," John Paul wrote.

The poem concludes with a prayer and advice on their deliberations. "It is necessary that during the conclave Michelangelo teach them," he notes, reminding the cardinals that, in God's eyes, "everything is naked and open." There is abundant evidence that Michelangelo was by nature one of God's children that Ratzinger would consider "intrinsically evil." I hope that irony hits him and a few of his pals when they are contemplating under Michelangelo's brilliant fresco.

The cardinal was eloquent and inspiring at John Paul II's funeral and his clear sorrow seemed so human, reflecting his loss of a cherished friend. For many cardinals, Ratzinger has long represented an extension of John Paul and now he presides over the Vatican as a steady, reliable father figure. He turned 78 on Saturday, perhaps a little old, but he seems to be in pretty good shape. If the cardinals want a quick, predictable choice in the ecclesiastical comfort zone, Ratzinger is our next pope. If so, he'll take the name John Paul III or Augustine.

But Ratzinger might be content to stay just where he is and essentially pick his own boss. He knows he's a lightning-rod for criticism and he's already been in power far too long.

By church rules, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith was supposed to serve a single 10-year term. The thinking behind the rule was that the office is so powerful that, by effectively imposing a term limitation, the corruption of power held too long would be avoided. When Ratzinger's term was up, John Paul chucked the rule and kept him in the office.

The Italians want the job back, and many of them are convinced they are genetically predisposed to run the Vatican. I tend to agree. As the largest national block in the College of Cardinals, with 17 percent of the votes and home-court advantage, the Italians wield enormous influence.

My personal favorite is Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan, now in retirement and living in Jerusalem. He is a brilliant theologian and a tender pastor. His marvelous name alone merits acclamation as pope. Martini is a vocal proponent of more collegiality and a greater role for bishops in decision-making. But he's a Jesuit, a progressive, and he has Parkinson's Disease. I pray for his miraculous election but I'm not betting on it.

Milan's Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi is the theologian John Paul often turned to for advice and guidance. The two shared similar views on the church's social teaching. Tettamanzi has denounced many aspects of globalized markets and he's spoken out against industrialized nations exploiting the poor and their resources.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re is the head of the Congregation for Bishops and he is known as a Vatican work-horse. He's grappled with serious problems, including the clergy sexual abuse scandals. He's also served as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the most populous Catholic region on earth and one of the most troubled.

Picking a Latin American pope would be a first and an inspiration. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have made significant inroads in nearly every corner of Latin America. Dedicated and well-financed Mormon missionaries are doing very well in the region selling their quasi-Christian mythology. The church must examine why and respond to the appeal these religious groups have in traditionally Catholic territory.

The coziness some members of the Latin American hierarchy have had with murderous dictators like Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile is one of the reasons popular support for the church has eroded.

In 1999, when British authorities detained Pinochet and considered extraditing him to Spain to face murder charges, Pope John Paul II interceded on his behalf "for humanitarian reasons." That move outraged the families of Pinochet's victims and reflected just how disconnected the church can be from oppressed people.

A Latin American pope could help change that and provide a voice for the poor. Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo, is an outspoken champion of he poor. He is a humble Franciscan, the son of German immigrants in Brazil. He would be wonderful, but some far-out right-wingers are already trying to label him a Communist sympathizer.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and another advocate for the poor whose personal modesty is a model for us all. He rides a bus to work instead of using the chauffeur-driven Lincolns most bishops prefer. He left his luxurious official residence to live in a little apartment where he does his own cooking. Bergoglio is a Jesuit. That might be a strike against him among the more conservative cardinals.

But he has an interesting advantage. He's Italian. His middle-class parents immigrated to Argentina. If the Italians line up with him along with the Latin Americans, Ratzinger may put his finger to the breeze in the Sistine Chapel and nod Bergoglio's way, and he will be the next pope. That's my bet and my prayer.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@sbcglobal.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 19 2005