Hope springs eternal — and so there is speculation, as there was after John Paul II died, that finally we might have a more liberal pope and/or a pope who represents the vast Third World population that is the real foundation of Roman Catholicism today. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think such predictions are unlikely to bear out.
As for a liberal pope, that’s basically impossible, given that the last forty years have been one long effort to squelch the much-lauded “spirit of Vatican II” while maintaining plausible deniability. Essentially all the cardinals who will be electing the next pope have been appointed by the two popes who have spearheaded that effort, and I don’t expect they’ll suddenly have a change of heart.
On the topic of a Third World pope, that strikes me as more plausible (i.e., not absolutely impossible), but still a long-shot. Is a group composed of the same brilliant strategic thinkers who elevated Benedict, along with new recruits directly appointed by Benedict, really going to take a major risk?
One should also take seriously the fact that Roman Catholicism is still a colonial church in many regions of the Third World and that, whatever is going on with the laity, the leadership may not be mentally “ready” to take up the reins — i.e., they may regard European leadership of the church as a more or less natural state of affairs, as evidenced by their current comfort with taking part in a rigidly hierarchical organization dominated by Europeans. One often sees that the Third World wings of Western churches are insecure in their status and eager to prove themselves by holding more strictly to the true faith (i.e., by being even more conservative than their Western counterparts).
Then there’s also the matter of financial dependence on the West, which would be especially acute in Africa, where significant relief money comes from the West and where a disproportionate number of the priests formed there wind up serving in the West. Asserting the dominant place of the Third World in the RCC — at a time when the majority of the Catholic population in those regions is more conservative than the already tenuously-connected Western Catholic population — could risk breaking the spell and the flow of resources.
The one exception to this dynamic of dependency may be Latin America, but then the continent that gave us Liberation Theology is probably not going to give us a pope when the electing committee is made up of people who flocked to and/or were appointed by the man who chose to disown Liberation Theology at the very peak of right-wing repression of the movement.
Additionally, though the RCC has generally been tone-deaf to PR concerns, surely everyone realizes that appointing the first non-Western pope at a time when we face the largely unprecedented situation that the previous pope is still alive would look… suspicious.
Finally, one should recognize the institutional dynamics. The very fact that the West is facing the prospect of losing control over the Church in the long run means that the West is likely to assert greater control while it still can. The time to take a major risk like nominating a non-Western pope is when the institution is feeling confident and expansive — and I don’t think anyone would characterize the contemporary Roman Catholic Church in that way. For an example of this dynamic, look at the Democratic party of 2004 and 2008. In 2004, one could argue that the Democrats needed a game-changer to really compete against Bush, but they were feeling weak and vulnerable and so they flocked to a “safe” candidate. By 2008, when they had already retaken Congress and Bush was more or less universally reviled, there was a protracted power struggle between the adherents of the first woman and the first black man to emerge as serious contenders for a major party nomination. I’m sure we can all come up with similar examples from our own experience with smaller institutions — even if an outsider might be able to see that a major shake-up is the appropriate response to an emergency situation, insiders generally prefer to go into lock-down mode.
Overall, then, I think the smart money is on another white dude — though probably someone closer to John Paul II than Benedict XVI on the charisma scale.