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Chance for a Canadian pope? You can bet on it

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Vatican City — Is the pope Canadian? Will the Vatican's highest office be as Catholic as maple syrup?

It may sound like the punch line to an old joke, but in the brief days of calm before the Vatican's storm of papal attention, the possibility of a maple-leaf papacy is hovering, even if only for a fleeting moment, in the Mediterranean air.

True, nobody in the Vatican has suggested that the frozen will be chosen, and Irish bookmakers have given Canada's most papabile cardinal long odds, at 80 to 1.

But international media, at least, have become addicted to the prospect of a Canuck on the holy throne.

For Britain's Economist magazine, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal is a likely papal candidate in the event of a deadlock between cardinals during the conclave to select the next pope, which is to begin on Monday.

In case of indecision, the magazine writes, the cardinals are likely to pick “someone of great spirituality,” and Cardinal Turcotte is said to be the most-cited candidate here.

For the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter, Quebec City Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 60, is a likely choice for pope. The magazine placed him on its Top 20 list of most likely popes, from among the 117 cardinals eligible to vote.

Cardinal Ouellet, the well-connected newspaper reports, “is well regarded in Rome and across much of the international Catholic hierarchy.” Its reporters note that he is favoured by “moderate-to-conservatives disappointed with some of the excesses that followed the Second Vatican Council.” He is widely regarded as deeply socially conservative, opposed to Quebec's Quiet Revolution.

But, most importantly, Cardinal Ouellet is a proficient speaker of English, French, Italian and German — qualities highly valued in the modern Catholic Church, where the competition is tight from other faiths in the soul-ripe emerging markets of the developing world.

Other news outlets, including the Associated Press wire service, have tipped Cardinal Ouellet this week.

But the prospect of a pape du nord, however appealing to the media, does not seem to have captivated the curate on the street in Rome, or the wider betting public.

The Irish betting agency Paddy Power, which takes bets on the future of the papacy (even though bets on papal transitions are forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church under a 17th-century papal bull), has placed Cardinal Ouellet on its odds table at 80 to 1, roughly in the middle of the pack, and Cardinal Turcotte at 100 to 1, far behind the rest of the field. Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto is also listed at 100 to 1.

The agency's favourite papal candidates are Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, at 7 to 2, followed by Jean-Marie Lustiger of France at 4 to 1 and Carlo Maria Martini of Italy at 9 to 2. This is partly determined by the oddsmakers' guesses, but also largely by the amounts of money bettors placed on candidates.

The agency's bettors have also determined that the selection of the next pope will take three days — the favoured time period, with odds of 5 to 4.

Italian papers have reported that the cardinals are determined to have the selection finished in a single day, in order to display their solidarity. The betting public seems to have dismissed that possibility, giving it long 14 to 1 odds.

The name of the next pope is equally mysterious: Paddy Power gives the best odds to Pope Benedict, a 3 to 1 bet. The second most likely odds go to Pope John Paul III, surely a title doomed to mediocrity, which nevertheless carries 7 to 2 odds. And Pope Pius, a name always associated with hardheaded conservatism (previous Piuses have resisted liberalizing movements), comes an ominous third with 6 to 1 odds.

A Paddy Power representative explained to reporters yesterday that Benedict was heavily favoured because a single individual had put a very large bet on it, along with a bet on Cardinal Lustiger of France.

In the churches of Canada, people are enjoying a brief frisson as the cardinals sun themselves in a moment of at least speculative attention.

That excitement really began in 2000, when the British theologian Margaret Hebblethwaite produced a revised edition of her late husband Peter's 1994 bestseller The Next Pope.

That book repeatedly touted Cardinal Turcotte as a likely successor to John Paul II. Canada, the authors wrote, “is not under suspicion in quite the way that the United States is,” and for Cardinal Turcotte, “being a French Canadian is definitely a plus over being an English-Canadian, because it makes him part of a minority, and one minority can understand the problems of another.”

Within the cloistered world of Catholic journalism, this holds a certain logic. But for the punters at the betting shop and the steely minds around the Vatican, the smart money still seems to be going miles away, to Germany, France and Italy.

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