Newswise — Speculation regarding the profile of the next leader of the Catholic Church is mounting in the days since Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising resignation. William Madges, Ph.D., dean of Saint Joseph’s University’s College of Arts and Sciences and professor of theology, warns that speculation is just that until the conclave actually meets, but notes some obvious considerations.

“It would be improbable, but not impossible, that the next pope would reflect a considerable shift in ideology,” says Madges, making reference to Pope John XXIII who succeeded Pope Pius XII and surprised the world by calling the Second Vatican Council. “Conservative and progressive are tricky terms. They mean different things to different people. But it is reasonable to suspect that the next pope will continue to maintain a “conservative” stance.

Age and ethnicity will play an important role, Madges suggests. It is unlikely, he says, that the next pontiff will be older than his mid-60s, and there’s a strong chance the papacy will remain with a European.

“The Europeans would like to see a European pope, particularly an Italian pope,” he explains. “The Italian block of cardinals is quite strong and with the last two papacies going to a Pole and a German, there will be a push to bring the papacy back to Italy. Many have put forward Archbishop of Milan Angelo Scola as a candidate.”

But Madges recognizes that speculation about a South American or African pope makes sense given that the strength of Catholicism lies in the southern hemisphere.

“Those are the places in the world where in terms of numbers and vibrancy of faith, Catholicism is fastest-growing and strongest. A selection of a pope from one of these regions would send an important message to the world, giving concrete evidence that the Catholic Church is a world church and respects diversity of culture.”

And with Benedict XVI still living, what influence, if any, will he have on the selection of the next pontiff?

“His influence will be strong, but indirect,” Madges explains. “It lies in the cardinals he has selected, more than half of the 117 who will be eligible to vote.”

Madges has expertise in the areas of papal elections, church history, Vatican II and Pope John Paul II. Madges is also one of the creators of “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” a nationally touring exhibit that examines the pontiff's groundbreaking contributions to improving relations between Catholics and Jews. Madges can be reached by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.

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