The conclave begins and the world will wait with bated breath to see which cardinal will be reviled by the news media as a terrible disappointment.
Let's be honest: the new pope is not going to make any of the changes that the media are so frantically insisting the entire Catholic Church desperately wants. Catholics know this. Orthodox Protestants know this. Mormons know this. Atheists (those who actually have read anything more informative than The God Delusion) know this. The only people who don't know it are muttonheaded media mavens who have no concept that religion is anything but a fashion statement.
So for those folks, here it is in simple words: The pope has enormous authority but relatively little power. He appoints bishops to their respective dioceses. He acts as a symbol of the eternal, universal Church. And occasionally he defines some point of doctrine that has been in dispute, usually for centuries. What he does not do is change doctrines already defined, nor does he pull fresh doctrines out of his... er... cassock.
Gay "marriage" ain't-a-gonna happen. Neither is female "ordination." Those things aren't even issues. No matter how "liberal" (read, trendy) a pope might be personally, he can't screw around with sacraments. At the very least, he'd engender a schism that would make 1054 look like a squabble over what color to carpet the sanctuary in.
That's not to say he can't make an enormous impact. When John Paul the Great was elected, it started the communist bloc on its inexorable slide onto the ash heaps of history. The Poles had held (one might even say clung bitterly) to their Catholic faith despite being sandwiched between a Protestant power and an Orthodox one for centuries. That went a long way toward making them the weak link in the red chain. Even at that, their vibrant, colorful Catholic faith was slowly being dulled by the drab sameness of Marxism, coupled with a sense that the rest of the world just didn't give a damn what happened to a bunch of Polacks.
But when one of their own was set on the throne of Peter, it galvanized the Poles. Here was a man who had worked as slave labor under the Nazis, studied in underground seminaries during the war and walked the razor's edge of being an archbishop in the Soviet shadow before becoming the moral lodestone of the world. For the first time in centuries, Poland had a national hero.
I expect the next pope will be chosen for similar reasons. So what's the big bugaboo menacing Christendom today? Islam. Yeah, yeah, I know. Religion of peace and all that. And I'm sure that holds true for individuals Muslims, and I mean no disrespect to them. But Christians in Muslim countries are currently getting pretty universally crushed. Even Egypt, which until recently was pretty decent to the Copts who predated Islam by centuries, has begun abandoning Christians to Muslim mob justice.
Now, I could be totally wrong. In fact, I've been thinking all along that the most likely candidate would be Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan. (Not my preference, but nobody asked me.) But what if the cardinals are smarter than I give them credit for? What if we get, say, Jean-Louis Tauran, currently the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue? His homeland of France has a large culture war going with Islam. Even more provocative would be John Onaiyekan of Nigeria or Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines. Can you hear the heads explode across the Islamosphere if the dhimmis suddenly had their own pope?
The next few days could well be the most significant in the 21st century. Pray hard.
(Note: Check out the semi-complete slate here, by one of the best-informed Vatican-watchers in the world.)
Update: The smoke is black. No big surprise there. More voting tomorrow morning.