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Outsiders scoff at the claims we Catholics make that the Holy Spirit guides the cardinals who will be electing a new pope. To those skeptics, I would suggest that divine protection is the only rational explanation for how our magnificent but flawed church has survived all these years.

But I am fed up with those who hide behind the Holy Spirit to avoid talking about the politics of this election. I'm not referring here to the honest modesty of people like Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who would make a great pope. Modesty is called for here. If you think Washington punditry is bad, watch how flawed all the predictions on this papal election will be -- including my own.

Still, God bless Father Tom Reese for saying on CNN that all elections involve politics. Exactly right, but what kind of politics? An editor asked recently what could possibly constitute "Vatican pork." He was not being disrespectful. He was assuming, rightly, that elections involve coalition-building in which those on the winning side expect some reward.

Popes do not have access to the classic forms of pork -- highway or defense contracts. But they do give out a lot of jobs. One brute fact about this election is that the vast majority of the 117 cardinals who will be picking the next pope were appointed by John Paul II. Few politicians play such a decisive role in shaping an election after they are gone.

Popes also fill important posts in the Vatican and name bishops around the world. Participants in the victorious coalition assume their friends will have a leg up in the competition for appointments. The Vatican also has a substantial bureaucracy to fill, a large diplomatic corps, places in various Vatican universities coveted by ambitious young priests, and honors for the laity that bishops can help broker. But in the end, these will all be artifacts of larger political factors:

The church's direction. This is the Big Enchilada. The assumption is that this electorate shares the pope's traditionalist theological tendencies and his penchant for centralizing control of the church. This would give a leg up to conservatives such as Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Milan, or, if the conclave is looking for an older transitional pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who turns 78 this month and heads the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The long shot (and this may take considerable work by the Holy Spirit) is that the cardinals will decide that holding the church together requires a tilt toward the center. The leading dark horse moderate is Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium.

Regional politics. John Paul was the first non-Italian pope since 1522. The Italians would like at least one more shot at the job. You could imagine a coalition of Italians and conservatives rallying behind Cardinal Tettamanzi, or the Italians picking a more moderate favorite son. The church is growing fastest in the Third World. The leading African candidate, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, could build a Third World-conservative alliance, as could some Latin American bishops.

Interest groups. The most famous is Opus Dei, the conservative group that had strong ties to John Paul. Its members are said to like Tettamanzi. Another very conservative organization on the rise is the Legionaries of Christ.

There are two theories here. One is that Opus Dei in particular will have great influence on this conclave. The other is that there will be a backlash against the growing power of these organizations as constituting "a church within the church." Conventional wisdom leans toward the first, so I'll tilt toward the second.

An old-fashioned machine-politics analysis puts the smart money on an Italian conservative like Tettamanzi, or failing that, a conservative from the Third World. But here, one must bring the divine back in. My hunch is that the Holy Spirit will surprise us on this one. That will humble the pundits, a moral good all by itself.

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