5 Qualifications For The Next Pope

Our guest blogger is Jack Jenkins, Writer and Researcher for the Center for American Progress Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.

Since Pope Benedict XVI announced he will resign from the Pontificate at the end of February, speculation has already begun as to who his replacement will be.

The process of electing a new Pope, however, is somewhat complicated – both politically and theologically. Technically speaking, for example, political positioning and specific personal attributes don’t make someone more or less “qualified” to be the Pope – according to Catholic tradition, the Pope is selected through the will of God, not because of any particular trait.

Still, recent Papal elections have exhibited some noticeable trends about who ends up in the Vatican’s Big Chair – attributes that aren’t necessarily required, but that show up more often than not among Popes. Here are a few:

1. The Pope can be almost any Catholic male, but is usually a cardinal. While the Pope does seem to have to be male, Canon law isn’t all that specific about other qualifications. The Pope can actually be a cardinal, a bishop, priest, or even a layman, although any non-cardinal would have to immediately receive an “episcopal consecration” from the Dean of the College of Cardinals before becoming Pope. There is certainly some precedent for non-cardinal Popes (see Pope Urban VI), and there is even speculation that a non-Catholic could hypothetically be elected Pope – provided he converts to Catholicism upon assuming the pontificate, of course. Most of the time, however, Popes are former cardinals – probably because cardinals are the ones who actually get to vote on the new Pope in the first place.

2. Popes are often old, but they’re not that old. The papacy isn’t known for attracting especially youthful individuals, but the system does have a cap: Only cardinals under the age of 80 can vote on the next Pope, and – since most Popes come from this group – it’s unlikely that anyone over 80 will ascend to the Papacy.

3. Popes tend to share many of the same views as their predecessor. Cardinals select the new Pope based on their faith and their personal conscience, but who does the voting matters: Pope Benedict, for instance, has appointed 67 of the 181 Cardinals that will be electing the new Pope. This is a common practice among Popes (John Paul II has appointed two-thirds of the electing Cardinals by the time he passed away), and significantly increases the chances that a new Pope will share many of his predecessor’s views.

4. The Pope is usually fluent in several languages. Catholicism boasts 1.3 billion adherents spread across every country in the world. This means communication (read: translation) is a big challenge for Catholicism, and a big part of Church governance. Not surprisingly, many former Popes were known to be linguistic savants; Pope John Paul II, for instance, was fluent in at least 8 languages, and conversant in several more. By contrast, Cardinal Timothy Dolan – the so-called “American Pope” – appears to only be fluent in English and Italian, although he also claims to be conversational in Spanish.

5. The Pope is typically knowledgeable about – or influential within – places where the Catholic Church is growing. Although the Catholic Church isn’t exactly a model for rapid change, the tradition isn’t oblivious to shifting times: Pope John Paul the II, for instance, was the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, and came to represent the global broadening of the Catholic tradition. The election of Pope Benedict XVI continued the new trend of non-Italian Popes (he’s German), and it stands to reason that – since the Catholic church is continuing to grow in Latin America and Africa – a new Pope could easily be pulled from one of those areas.