Is Rome ready for a non-European pope? Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, seen by some as Africa's top candidate to become the next pope, is a strong contender. Photo: AFP
As cardinals gather in Rome to elect a new pope, the Catholic Church faces either a Vatican Spring or a new ice age, says its most senior theologian, the dissident Hans Kung.
The most urgent need, Dr Kung wrote in The New York Times last week, was a pope ''not living intellectually in the Middle Ages''. Otherwise the ossified institution risked shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect, he wrote.
Many Catholics, unsettled amid the ''turbulent waters and rough winds'' to which Pope Emeritus Benedict referred in his final public speech last week, share Dr Kung's trepidation.
Part of the problem is that there are at least a dozen plausible candidates, amid an ocean of imponderables. The church, US surveys show, is ready for the first non-European pope in 1500 years, but there is a strong counterargument for returning to an Italian - after all, the pope is the bishop of Rome.
It took a mere two days in 2005 to elect Joseph Ratzinger, an obviously outstanding candidate once the cardinals accepted his priorities: secularism (the ''culture of death'') and Europe's exodus from faith. This time round, with so much to deliberate, consensus could take much longer.
For all the merits of the leading candidates, each has obstacles to overcome of personality, performance or perception. Here, in no particular order, are the names most mentioned. From Italy, Angelo Scola, 71, Archbishop of Milan, the leading Italian and early favourite but seen as divisive. Gianfranco Ravasi, 70 , head of the Council for Culture, did his chances no harm with a polished series of reflections for the Lenten retreat attended by the Pope (previous speakers included John Paul II and Benedict ). He could be a good compromise, as might Genoa Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, 69, the popular head of the Italian conference.
Elsewhere in Europe, if the cardinals can accept a second German-speaker in a row, Austria's aristocratic Christoph Schoenborn will be a strong candidate.
Latin America offers Odilo Scherer, 63, Archbishop of Sao Paulo; Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 70, of Honduras; Vatican bureaucrat Leonardo Sandri, 69; and - less likely - Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, reportedly runner-up last time.
From North America, the uncompromising Marc Ouellet, 68, head of the Congregation for Bishops, is a strong candidate, though he is said to suffer a personality bypass, while US commentators include New York's Timothy Dolan more from hope than expectation.
Africa's likeliest man is charismatic Ghanaian Peter Turkson, 64, with Robert Sarah - like Turkson, head of a Vatican department - a second option. Francis Arinze of Nigeria is often cited, but his best chance was last time - at 80, he will not be in the conclave, and the last pope selected from outside the voters was in 1378.
From Asia, Manila's Luis Tagle would be a popular choice with some outstanding qualities, but the cardinals may take fright at his age, 55.
Others who could emerge as compromise candidates include Sri Lanka's Malcolm Ranjith, Brazil's Joao Braz de Alviz and Sydney Archbishop George Pell, who has a high profile among the cardinals, and is seen as orthodox and strong. His reputation as a polished media performer has taken some hits lately.
Being a Curia (Vatican government) cardinal, with its extra opportunities to network, has often been an advantage, but the Curia is like the Nixon White House, racked by infighting, factions and agendas, and apparently in free fall. The Italian cause is similarly weakened by intractable divisions, especially between the factions of Angelo Sodano, the former secretary of state, and Tarcisio Bertone, his successor.
Bertone is widely blamed for Benedict's management disasters, and is unlikely to be elected, but he will be very influential. So will Sodano, though at 85 he will not be at the conclave.
The cardinals have many factions but they are fluid and overlapping, based on shared theology, geography, language and agreement over which challenges are most urgent. In 2005, Ratzinger's supporters persuaded the others that secularism and the church's decline in the West were top priorities. This will still be true for many, but for others it will be sex abuse, sorting out the shenanigans in the Vatican or recognising that the centre of church gravity has moved to the developing world.
The cardinals will surely be influenced by the church's varied challenges, but they are as likely to choose on personality and character. Will they opt for a pastor who might heal the wounds, an evangelist who will bring a missionary emphasis or, as Cardinal Pell suggested last week, someone who can lead the church and ''perhaps provide a bit more discipline''?
A Harvard Business School blog attracted wide attention by suggesting it is time to learn from the selection criteria used by top businesses, highlighting administration and the need to delegate.
And underneath the politicking, the cardinals are acutely aware it is ultimately a religious decision needing, as they say, the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But that can be unreliable - as Benedict once admitted, plenty of popes could not have been the Holy Spirit's choice.