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Social progressives who are excited by the possibility of an African or Latin American pope should be wary of what they ask for. The leading candidates of color appear to lean closer politically to Clarence Thomas than to Colin Powell. Or, in terms of the American Latino political rainbow, closer to Linda Chavez than Cesar Chavez.

Among other welcome changes brought on by Pope John Paul II, the first pope from Poland has made the rise of a pope from someplace other than Europe all the more plausible and possible. That's good news for those who want to remind the world that Catholics do come in more than one color. Even the possibility of a pope from the United States seems more possible someday, although no more likely this time around than a snowman in the Sahara.

Much more likely, Vatican watchers say, is a pope from Africa or Latin America because of the importance of those regions to the future of the church. Only a third of the world's Catholics live in Europe or the United States, compared to 43 percent in Latin America and another third in Africa. And the gap is growing. In the next few years, Catholics in Africa are expected to outnumber their fellow Catholics in Europe.

That gives the cardinals a lot to think about in the conclave, which is set to begin April 18. Speculation is already rampant about the "papabili," cardinals who are considered to be papal material. The five most-often mentioned candidates from the developing world are Nigerian-born Cardinal Francis Arinze; Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 70, of Brazil; Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, of Honduras; Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 68, of Argentina, who has Italian ancestry, and Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, 62, archbishop of Mexico City.

Each is known to be an advocate for the poor and against corruption in government, yet also a strong conservative on doctrine. Issues like marriage for priests, artificial birth control, rights for homosexuals, an expanded role for women in the church or a crackdown on priestly sex abuse have not been high agenda items for the these clerics.

Arinze, for example, who would be the first African pope since Pope Gelasius I, who led the church from 492 to 496, stirred a small walkout during a speech in 2003 at Georgetown University when he said the institution of marriage is "mocked by homosexuality." He also lashed out at "an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia."

And, while many consider Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga to be less rigidly conservative than other Latin Americans elevated by John Paul II, he also is remembered for accusing American media in a 2002 interview of covering the church's pedophilia scandals "with a fury that reminds me at times of Diocletian and Nero (two Roman emperors) and more recently of Stalin and Hitler; the church should be free of this kind of treatment."

To be fair, popes, like Supreme Court justices, have a way of surprising us. Once they assume their respective thrones, they often turn out to be far more conservative or progressive than expected. It's possible that any of these gentlemen might enter the papacy as a conservative caretaker and turn out to be as reform-minded as the Second Vatican Council.

Trends in the developing world suggest otherwise, however. The Catholic Church is facing a worldwide version of red state/blue state America. It has been losing members and priest candidates in progressive-minded European and American parishes and gaining them in the developing world, where social attitudes are most conservative.

Some cynics have raised the possibility of massive white flight from the Catholic church if a black or Latin American became pope. I believe the world has progressed much more intelligently than that. A bigger possibility, I suspect, is a defection by those who would be frustrated if change in the church is only skin deep.