In the conclave that elected him, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the obvious candidate; the question was, "if not him, who?" As a result of the appointments Pope John Paul II had made, it was now a global college. They barely knew each other. But they all knew him – and he knew them. Once they had seen him in action, the question became, "why not him?" The task of discernment was largely over.
But there is no such figure in this conclave. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian archbishop in charge of the Congregation of Bishops, remains the man to beat; but, there are other strong contenders too.
Nor, in this conclave, is there the traditional division between "liberals" and "conservatives" that so dominated previous papal elections. In the early 20th century, the battle was between the "integrists" – defenders of the "throne-and-altar" Counter-Reformation model – and those who, following Pope Leo XIII, sought to come to terms with the challenge of modernity. In the second half of the 20th century, the struggle was over the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council – a struggle that exhausted the papacy of Pope Paul VI.
Just as Pope Leo XIII settled the relationship of the Church to the modern world, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI settled the question of the interpretation of Vatican II. In 2005, there was still a handful of by then quite old "progressive" cardinals who voted in the first round against Cardinal Ratzinger. But this time round, they are a spent force.
Working out lines of disagreement or difference within the College of Cardinals is therefore a major challenge, especially for the media, who need dividing lines around to which to base debates and discussions.
Earlier today I was part of a BBC World Service panel discussion on the "future direction of the Church." It included an Austrian representative of the "We Are Church" organization, which calls for women priests. The early part of the discussion was taken up with that question, which, you can be absolutely certain, is not being considered by the cardinals and is certainly not being discussed in the "future Church" of the developing world. These wholly unrealistic discussions are dominating the media coverage of the papal election, simply in order to have "different perspectives."
So, what might the cardinals disagree over? The areas of Church life that need attention or reform – reinforcing and extending guidelines to prevent abuse, or getting a grip on curial governance – are not matters in which there are "reformers" vs. "conservatives": All can agree on the need for continued or renewed attention in those areas, even if solutions might vary.
What about age? Some cardinals feel strongly that the new pope should be young – in his 60s or even 50s. Others say age doesn't matter much and that the new practice of a pope resigning when he becomes frail has changed the dynamic: Both an older and a younger pope are now more possible. But no cardinal believes age is crucial: If they find the right man, his age won't be a bar.
Nor, of course, will his color and culture. The new pope, all the cardinals agree, could come from anywhere.
But that doesn't mean geography won't matter.
In this conclave, for the first time, for a large number of the cardinals it is likely to be the most significant factor of all, partly because of the absence of other dividing lines, and partly because the global make-up of the College has exposed the European bias of the governance of the Church: Europe has 20 percent of the world's Catholics yet more than 50 percent of the cardinals; the Americas have 50 percent of the world’s Catholics yet only 20 percent of the cardinals. (Africa and Asia are better represented: They have 10 percent of the Catholics each, and about 10 percent each of the cardinals.)
This imbalance is particularly marked at a time when the Church in Europe is showing many signs of being tired and declining. Europe, some cardinals think, needs to be evangelized from the South – or at least from the West.
Here's the hypothesis: In this conclave, one of the main dividing lines will be between those who believe now is the right time for the pope to be a non-European (from the Americas, where half of all Catholics now live, or from Africa or Asia, where the Church is now growing fast) and those who believe that that question should be irrelevant to their choice of pope.
In this conclave, in short, the dividing line could well be between the "internationalists" and the "Europeans" – and the dynamic between them could determine the choice of the next Successor of St Peter.
Austen Ivereigh, who is blogging for us daily from Rome on the papal transition, is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk). A former communications director to the Archbishop emeritus of Westminster (England), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, he accompanied the cardinal to Rome in 2005 for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and election of Pope Benedict XVI. He is the author of "How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice" (OSV, $13.95).