There was never doubt that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's hard-line defender of the faith, would have a strong hand in selecting the next pope. But in the days of prayer and politics before the conclave, which begins on Monday, he has emerged as perhaps the surprise central figure: the man who could become the 265th pope, choose him or be the one other cardinals knock from the running.
Any talk of who will become the next pope is guesswork, echoes from cardinals and their staffs sworn to silence about one of the world's most elite and secretive gatherings.
But one bit of wisdom has emerged in the Italian press as conventional: that Cardinal Ratzinger, a German close to John Paul II, has up to 50 votes among the 115 elector cardinals, or at least that is the strength his supporters claim.
That is short of the two-thirds, or 77 votes, needed in the early stages of voting. Still, he appears to command the largest and most cohesive block, and at a minimum, it seems unlikely that the next pope will be chosen without his blessing.
But interviews with more than a dozen Vatican experts and church officials suggest that forces are lining up against Cardinal Ratzinger - who, at 78, may be judged too old, too uncharismatic and, perhaps most important, too rigid to hold together a polarized church that is a billion people strong.
Some believe the church needs a more moderate man, a less authoritarian leader or one from outside of Europe.
"Ratzinger represents continuity - he was the right-hand man of the pope," said Giuseppe De Carli, head of Italian public television's Vatican bureau, who in recent years has interviewed most of 115 cardinals who will begin the secretive process of selecting the new pope on Monday.
"But the cardinals need both continuity and discontinuity," he added. "They can't create a pope that will be the photocopy of the preceding one."
Some experts say that is precisely the problem: that Cardinal Ratzinger has ambitions higher than being a photocopy of John Paul.
Based on Cardinal Ratzinger's record and pronouncements, his agenda seems clear. Inside the church, he would like to impose more doctrinal discipline, reining in priests who experiment with liturgy or seminaries that permit a broad interpretation of doctrine. Outside, he would like the church to assert itself more forcefully against the trend he sees as most threatening: globalization leading eventually to global secularization.
But some cardinals worry that it is healing, not confrontation, that the church needs. Most cardinals eligible to vote are now refusing media interviews - a consequence of the media blackout the cardinals decided to impose eight days ago. But some are talking on background to Vatican colleagues, church scholars, leaders of Catholic organizations and to Italian journalists who specialize in covering the Vatican. The New York Times spoke with several cardinals and more than a dozen people in recent contact with the cardinals. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The top candidate of the forces opposing the Ratzinger bloc appears to be Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, who could also have a chance of peeling off a few votes from the Ratzinger camp. His profile offers a little something for each flank. A conservative moral theologian who has written on bioethics, he collaborated with John Paul on the encyclical laying out the justifications for opposing abortion, birth control and euthanasia.
In recent years, however, Cardinal Tettamanzi has began to sound off on issues of poverty and social justice. When protesters went to Genoa, Italy, for the Group of 8 summit meeting of industrialized nations in 2001, he spoke to the crowd on the evils of globalization.
Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for L'Espresso magazine, said the cardinal could unite conservatives and liberals. "He is an exponent of compromise, but a real honest conservative," Mr. Magister said.
The interviews suggest that the standard-bearer for the liberals among the anti-Ratzinger forces is, at least for the moment, the retired archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini. There is a strange sort of symmetry to the two men: both are 78-year-old scholars with stratospheric intellects who command the respect of their colleagues.
But Cardinal Martini appears to control far fewer votes. He has said he has not ruled out changes to priestly celibacy or the bans on contraception and on women serving as deacons. He has a form of Parkinson's disease and, unlike Cardinal Ratzinger, is not considered an active candidate. Experts say that while he respects Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Martini does not support his vision of the church.
"Martini," said Alberto Melloni, a papal historian, "thinks that if the church does not move on in terms of doctrine, it is condemned to lose the content of Christian truth."
If the cardinals could start from scratch and order up the perfect pope, the candidate to lead the Roman Catholic Church of 2005 might look like this:
Charismatic and basically conservative. Intellectual but accessible. Speaks Italian, Spanish and English. Not too old, not too young, since the cardinals want neither a 26-year papacy like John Paul's nor a pope who will be bedridden in two or three years. A pastor, but one familiar with Vatican bureaucracy. Someone willing to let local bishops go their own way - within limits. Perhaps he would be from the third world, where the church is growing, but he has ties to Europe and could reinvigorate the flagging faith there.
Holding this template against the men in the running gives some clues, with the caution that the candidate who comes closest does not necessarily win. Politicking will also play a major role - and at this moment the central player is indisputably Cardinal Ratzinger.
A close associate of John Paul for nearly 30 years, he has a soft voice, a shy manner and a full head of white hair. Friends say that he gets wrongly portrayed as "God's Rottweiler" and that he is actually a warm and spiritual man.
"In the last months of John Paul's papacy, Ratzinger was visible as the supporting column of the church, and so they are following him," Mr. Magister said.
Several church sources said Cardinal Ratzinger had the support of an international array of cardinals, including Francis George of Chicago; Christoph Schönborn of Austria; Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina; Camillo Ruini and Angelo Scola of Italy; and Marc Ouellet of Quebec.
But some cardinals said in interviews before this week that he might centralize power even more than John Paul, just when many cardinals are hoping for their local dioceses to have a greater say in their affairs.
Cardinal Martini's progressive bloc could not wield enough votes to block Cardinal Ratzinger. But the opposition is being joined, several Vatican watchers said, by other groups, in particular a group of Italian cardinals, who by several accounts include Angelo Sodano, John Paul's last secretary of state, and Giovanni Battista Re, who had been in charge of bishops under the late pope.
The members of the Ratzinger contingent are well aware that their candidate may lose, and so are ready to shift their votes. The most obvious backup, several experts said, is Cardinal Ruini, the vicar of Rome.
He is as a forceful figure in Italian politics, opposing rights for gays and lesbians and some forms of assisted reproduction, and supporting immigrants' rights.
But he faces the opposition of those Italian cardinals supporting Cardinal Tettamanzi, so other Ratzinger protégés could emerge.
One is Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, a conservative Jesuit who early in his career distanced himself from proponents of liberation theology. Born to Italian parents, he could be a bridge between Latin America and Europe.
A second is Cardinal Scola, patriarch of Venice, a scholar and a tireless pastor. He has spotless conservative credentials, softened by a grass-roots style.
Another is Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna. An aristocrat, he has often made lists of potential popes because of his intellect, language skills and conservatism, but his administrative skills may seem lacking.
The Latin American cardinals, with 18 percent of the cardinal electors, match the strength of the Italians. But they do not all share the same vision of the church's needs. Nor, it seems, are they all rooting for the home team.
Alejandro Bermúdez, the Peruvian editor in chief of ACI Prensa, a Catholic news agency in Latin America, said those prelates held no conviction that the next pope must be from Latin America. "They would not be opposed to it," he said, "but at this time it is not their priority."
Still, several Latin Americans were frequently mentioned as strong candidates: Cardinal Bergoglio; Claudio Hummes of Brazil, a progressive who moved to the right; and Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a conservative on social issues.
Also mentioned were Norberto Rivera Carrera, archbishop of Mexico, who at 62 may be considered too young, and Juan Sandoval Iñíguez, 72, archbishop of Guadalajara.
With so many candidates and so much apparent division, another familiar situation is looking more and more possible.
In the last conclave in 1978, Vatican-watchers had concocted lists of potential popes 20 to 30 names long, hoping that would cover all the possibilities. But Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal from Poland who became Pope John Paul II after three days, made practically none of them.
"Do not underestimate the power of the microculture that is generated among the cardinals when they are together," said Mr. Bermúdez, the Peruvian editor. "The kind of reflections that end up influencing them are completely unpredictable."
Elisabetta Povoledo of the International Herald Tribune contributed reporting for this article.