Is the Next Pope on This List of Possibilities?

BOOK PICK: Edward Pentin has a new book, The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates.

(photo: Cropped book cover)

The Next Pope:

The Leading Cardinal Candidates

By Edward Pentin

Sophia Institute Press, 2020

704 pages, $29.95

To order: or (800) 888-9344


The Next Pope isn’t an updated version of St. Malachy’s prophecies of the popes, or an attempt to join the dots between Marian apparitions and the next conclave. It’s not a simple plunge into Church and Vatican realpolitik, although there’s some of that. And it’s not the work of a cheerleader throwing support behind a specific cardinal.

The Next Pope is, however, 700 pages of detailed information about 19 cardinals currently considered strong contenders at the next conclave to elect a pontiff. The author, Edward Pentin, has spent 17 years in and around the Vatican — more than most cardinals — as the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.


The Choice of 19

The choice of 19 includes both likely and unexpected names. Some of the recent publicity around the book has suggested it shows a clear “conservative” outlook. However, a more varied and interesting interpretation better reflects the choices made.

For example, a subtler line in the sand might understand Pentin’s book in terms of conservative, progressive and traditionalist categories in relation to faith, morals and liturgy.  

Readers encounter well-known names among those one could expect to continue the direction of Pope Francis’ papacy — Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Peter Turkson, of Ghana, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; and Luis Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples since December 2019 and former archbishop of Manila. But less well-known and newer Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who oversees the Archdiocese of Bologna, Italy, and is a member of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, also makes the list. 

Conservatives include the likes of Cardinals Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Angelo Scola, former archbishop of Milan, Italy, and Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe. And among the traditionalist-leaning cardinals we see Cardinals Raymond Burke, former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta; Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments;  and Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Likewise, not on the list are four of the six current cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis, seen as influentialand experienced (Cardinals Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, and former president of the German bishops’ conference; Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay; Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and president of the Governorate of Vatican City State; and Óscar Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and former president of the Latin American Episcopal Conference). Also missing is German conservative Cardinal Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne; and Spain’s more traditional Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Lloverae, archbishop of Valencia and former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Some candidates seem likely to fall off this list, too, as once they reach 80 years old, they are no longer eligible to vote. For example, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier turns 80 in 2021, Cardinal Scola is already 78 and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi 77, unless, of course, a conclave is called within the next couple of years.

Pentin stresses that this is the combined work of a team of scholars and researchers throughout the world who made this book possible. He also suggests in his introduction that further editions could come, as the profiles of the cardinal-electors change.


A Timely Resource

So, why write it, and why now? There have been plenty of books over the years trying to predict who will be the next pope and the big factors swaying cardinal electors.

Pentin’s project is distinct, in that his audience are those who will pick the next pope. First and foremost, he wants to inform the Church’s current 122 cardinal-electors spread throughout the world, and indeed those who are yet to be made cardinal.

In recent years, Pope Francis has chosen not to hold meetings of cardinals before consistories where new cardinals are created. It means they have not met together as a group, missing out on valuable opportunities to network and learn more about each other and the universal life of the Church.

Similarly, Pope Francis has created 88 cardinals (some not eligible to elect a pope due to age) from 56 countries during his pontificate, with 17 countries getting a cardinal for the first time; 66 (54%) of the cardinal-electors have now been appointed by Francis, with 40 appointed by Benedict XVI and 16 by John Paul II.

Today’s College of Cardinals electors group is also less Eurocentric (41.8%) and less experienced in the workings of the Vatican and behind-the-scenes activity when it comes to electing a pope. Few have the global experience and exposure that some in the Curia have. It makes Pentin’s book timely and necessary and should not be read as early lobbying, disloyal to the current pope, or an attempt to sabotage a cardinal’s chances. Pentin stresses that this book is not a commentary on any past or current pope.

There is little opportunity between the death of one pope and the election of the next. It’s sudden, and things move fast. With Pope Francis now 83 years old and in reasonable health, publication of The Next Pope gives cardinal-electors a decent amount of time to learn, in depth, about possible candidates. Education is a great leveler, too. A better educated, more informed group of cardinal-electors is, one would hope, less likely to succumb to the workings and agendas of more established cardinals, as voting blocs are formed. Enough has been written about the so-called St. Gallen group of bishops and cardinals (a club of cardinals that are said to have been opposed to Pope Benedict XVI and that wanted a drastic reform of the Church) to see how Pentin’s book might just prove a counterweight to future cliques and agendas — providing The Next Pope makes it into the hands of all current cardinal-electors.  

A fact-filled introduction includes some theology and history on the papacy, College of Cardinals and how popes were elected and by whom. There’s also a note on the history of books such as Pentin’s, originally known as libelli, biographies of papal candidates posted around the city of Rome in the 1550s. These gave way to more formal biographies of papal candidates written by diplomats and other trusted persons.

A short ecclesiastical biography of each of the 19 cardinals gives way to a critical review of their role as successor of the apostles, namely their track record in sanctifying, governing and teaching. An array of topics is covered across each chapter: relations with world religions, immigration, Humanae Vitae, the traditional Latin Mass, the sexual-abuse crisis, financial transparency, Marian devotion, euthanasia, faith in the public square, sexuality, marriage and the family and more besides.


Questions for the Author

Perhaps a separate article or interview with or by Pentin could explain to readers the criteria he and other informed observers used to select these 19 cardinals. For example, to what extent did current media coverage and public profile play, which factors kept others off the list, how broad was the pool of informed observers in terms of background and views, and did Pentin have the final say over which 19 made the cut, or was it a group decision? 

The Church has a distinct set of cardinal-electors, as outlined above, which is reflected in the list of 19. One may also wonder what, if any, unofficial advisory role Benedict XVI might play, should he outlive Pope Francis. A book could also be written on the influence of cardinals over the age of 80 (e.g., Cardinals Angelo Sodano, Giovanni Re, Tarcisio Bertone, Walter Kasper) who cannot directly vote in a conclave, but still hold a lot of influence and are well connected. Although outside the purview of The Next Pope, they are questions to be asked and would prove useful for Pentin’s audience.

Daniel Blackman

writes from London.