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The Roman Catholic Church is one small step closer to a new pope today. Church cardinals have picked a date to begin their conclave. That's the gathering behind closed doors to elect the next pope. The cardinals will gather next Tuesday morning for a special mass, and they'll enter the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon, after which point they'll be incommunicado with the outside world until a new pope is elected.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. And, Sylvia, it took a week of consultation for the cardinals to pick the date. Should we read something into this special choice, the choice of Tuesday, March 12, for the conclave?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, what emerged this week were two fronts: The Rome-based cardinals of the Curia of the Vatican administration who wanted to start the conclave as fast as possible, probably to limit the damage from airing the Vatican's dirty laundry - and there's a lot of that - and the cardinals from the rest of the world who wanted more time to get to know each other and to discuss the major issues facing the worldwide Catholic Church. For weeks, the betting had been on Monday, so I think that by choosing Tuesday, the two fronts reached a compromise. But that doesn't mean the conclave is going to be easy nor that there are any specific front-runners.
CORNISH: And despite the fact that these consultations were behind closed doors, what have you learned about what transpired in these sessions? And did different, say, factions emerged?
POGGIOLI: Well, we actually learned a lot. Before the American cardinals briefings were canceled by the Vatican, they told us that for them the major issues are zero tolerance for clerical sex abuse and reform of the Curia, the important governance issue, which emerged with the Vatileaks scandal last year that exposed a world of corruption and infighting and a dysfunctional administration.
And the Americans made it very clear they wanted as much time as necessary to discuss these and all sorts of other issues. And we've learned today, on International Women's Day, they even discussed the role of women in the church. The openness of the Americans was very contagious. Cardinals from other parts of the world started giving interviews, urging a stronger role for laypeople and insisting on a bet the next pope apply the Second Vatican Council principle of collegiality between the pope and the bishops.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, has the resignation of Pope Benedict and the fact that he's still alive had an impact on the cardinals in their deliberation?
POGGIOLI: Well, at first, a lot of us have thought, both the shock of the resignation and the shadow of the living pope would somehow intimidate the cardinals. But I think now the opposite is true. There's been - none of the emotion and grief of a funeral, so the cardinals seems to feel much freer in analyzing Benedict's papacy and its failures, and how difficult it was for him to reform the Curia.
The resignation seems to have actually emboldened the cardinals from outside of Rome to confront the Curia, and the resignation has chipped away at the semi-divine nature of the papacy. And it's opened up all sorts of new problems, even the notion of a time limit, you know, for instance, a non-popular pope could even be forced to resign.
CORNISH: And lastly, Sylvia, I gather there are front-runners, but there are names being mentioned. Are you betting on any of them?
POGGIOLI: Well, the field is very open. It seems the non-Rome-based cardinals want to avoid anyone connected with the Curia, while the Curia cardinals - many of them are Italians - seem to be looking for a non-Italian but who's friendly to the Curia. There are a lot of Third World candidates: Africa, Asia and Latin America. They seem to have a better chance than ever before. But, you know, a two-thirds majority is needed so the cardinals may end up having to compromise and that makes predicting the winner very difficult.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thank you.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Audie.
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