When the news was announced on Monday morning that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to
resign, effective Feb. 28, I said to my wife, Joan, "Wow! Just imagine if they replaced him by electing a woman as pope!"
She snorted derisively.
I still think Pope Mary I would be a wonderful idea. But I agree with Joan that any such event is highly unlikely. London bookmakers are already taking bets on the next pope. Bono apparently ranks 1000 to 1 - they offer no odds at all on any woman.
After all, consider who is making the decision. A conclave of 118 cardinals. All men. Not one of them under 50. Not even one of whom has taken a public stand in favour of female priests, let alone a female pope.
Even if there were a potential female candidate - personally, I'd love to see Sister Mary Jo Leddy setting the Vatican's agenda - she couldn't attend the conclave to promote her platform.
The sheer inertia of past practice suggests that the possibility will not even enter
All large institutions resemble an extremely complicated mathematical formula, in which you can adjust only one variable at a time. Change two or more at the same time, and the formula collapses into nonsense.
The late Ted Scott understood that reality, when he was Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. During the early 1970s, his Anglican Church faced three tectonic upheavals: the ordination of women, modernization of the historic Prayer Book liturgy, and organic union with the United Church of Canada.
Scott made a decision to abandon efforts towards church union. The Anglican Church survived the other two earthquakes.
The College of Cardinals made a similar decision in 1978 when they elected Karol Jozef Wojtyla of Poland as the first non-Italian pope in 450 years.
Given the limitations on travel and communications prior to the Second World War, choosing Italian popes made sense. For a church headquartered in Rome, only Italian prelates had ongoing involvement in its inner workings. A cardinal resident in, say, Mexico City would be effectively isolated from participation in the church hierarchy.
Mere popularity was not enough. In the 1970s, Dom Helder Camara of Brazil was one of the best known Roman Catholic archbishops in the world. But he was an outsider, a burr under the Vatican's saddle. He said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."
Camara in Recife had no more chance of being elected pope than Mother Teresa had in Calcutta.
Today, though, with air travel and Internet communication, anyone anywhere in the world can play the Vatican's version of Monopoly.
And so, in 1978, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church made a momentous decision. Pope John Paul I, an Italian committed to continuing the reforms begun by John XXIII, had died after just 33 days in office. By selecting John Paul II, the cardinals decided that the variable they were prepared to change was geographic, not theological.
It's possible that if the cardinals had chosen to maintain the status quo by electing yet another Italian pope, the reforms initiated by Vatican II might have continued. But they didn't.
In a sense, if the church chose to install a feisty new horse to pull their wagon, they could hardly at the same time risk upsetting the applecart of doctrine and dogma.
The cardinals continued that globalizing policy in 2005 by electing the first German-born Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Currently, London bookmakers offer the best odds on cardinals Peter Turkson from Ghana, Francis Arinze of Nigeria, and Marc Ouellet from Canada.
Other favourites include Odilo Scherer of Brazil, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Luis Tagle of the Philippines (at 55, the youngest candidate), and Timothy Dolan of New York.
You might note not a European in that list. Although the BBC does include two Italians and an Austrian in its list of front-runners, the bookmakers seem to favour representatives of the so-called Third World, where the vast majority of Roman Catholics now live.
Admittedly, bookmakers have no inside knowledge. They should not be considered authorities on the mind of the church - any church. But if their odds have any validity at all, they suggest that theological modernization will again take a back seat to a globalized image.
So I would wager that the cardinals meeting in secrecy in the Sistine Chapel will choose their new leader to reflect their desire to be seen not just as a Roman church, but as the World Catholic Church. For the same reason, they will not choose someone likely to redefine what it means to be Catholic.
But like the bookmakers, I could be wrong.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at