Although the election of a pope is in many ways a carefully scripted process, the closest thing to a wild card this time around may well be 68-year-old Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, reports NCR Online.
Depending on who's doing the handicapping, the erudite Dominican is either an obvious, slam-dunk contender or somebody who's basically taken himself out of the running.
Schönborn certainly has the right pedigree for the job. A member of the ancient Austrian noble family of Schönborn-Buchheim-Wolfstahl, he's one of two cardinals and 19 archbishops, bishops, priests and religious sisters his family has produced.
He's not even the first Schönborn to be the primate of the Austrian church; that honor fell to his great-great uncle, Cardinal Franz Graf Schönborn, who led the Austrian episcopacy under the old Austro-Hungarian empire from his position as the archbishop of Prague. (He had previously been the bishop of Budweis -- hence he was, believe it or not, a "Budweiser.")
Schönborn studied theology under then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger in Regensburg, Germany, in the 1970s, and later taught at the prestigious Swiss University of Friborg. He served as general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In Vienna, he won high marks early on for steadying a church that had been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal involving his predecessor.
As time went on, however, Schönborn's image became more mixed. He was involved in an ugly clash with the demagogic Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, and many people preferred Krenn's blunt talk to Schönborn's shifting and evasive comments.
Schönborn then carried out a purge of his staff, in one case informing his popular vicar general that he had been fired by leaving a note on his doorstep.
More recently, Schönborn has watched as hundreds of his own priests have gone into open rebellion, issuing a "call to disobedience" over issues such as celibacy and the role of women in the church. (The movement is actually led by the former vicar.)
While Schönborn hasn't exactly welcomed the uprising, he hasn't shut down lines of conversation either, which some see as admirable pastoral sensitivity, and others as cowardice.
Two years ago, many people were ready to write an obituary for Schönborn's papal prospects after a highly public spat with Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Secretary of State and still the dean of the College of Cardinals.
As a series of clerical abuse scandals exploded across Europe, which among other things cast a critical spotlight on Benedict XVI's personal record, Sodano created a sensation by calling that criticism "petty gossip" during the Vatican's Easter Mass.
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