Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s former number two, appeared to enter the fray as conservatives who want the Roman Catholic Church to continue in Pope John Paul II’s footsteps squared off against a more liberal camp.

Support for the 77-year-old Sodano among Latin American cardinals may give the moderate considerable clout in the election process starting Monday, and could eventually land him the top job, Vatican watchers said.

Sodano held a string of posts in Latin America as a Vatican diplomat before John Paul II named him Vatican secretary of state, a mandate that expired with the Pope’s death on April 2.

He has now gained prominence in the interplay of influence and allegiances among the elector cardinals with the emergence of a roughly even split between the conservative camp, led by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and liberals backing Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan.

The identity of the next Pope is absolutely critical to the Roman Catholic Church as it struggles to retain influence in an increasingly secular world.

John Paul II took a strongly conservative position on issues ranging from abortion, divorce, contraception and euthanasia to the ordination of women.

Many in the Church however want his successor to adopt a more liberal tone in line with changing social values, notably on contraception — particularly in the fight against AIDS — and women.
While Ratzinger, who turns 78 on Saturday, insists on the centrality of the Pope and the Curia, or the Vatican hierarchy, Martini, also 78, is in favour of greater powers for bishops and local churches.

“In lay terms, you could look at it as a wish to democratize the Church,” the left-wing daily La Repubblica said in an editorial.

Martini and Ratzinger — the latter has been dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” for his ultraconservative views — are thought to have equal support, but short of the 77 votes they need with many of the 115 cardinals due to take part in the conclave still undecided.

Both have health problems — Martini suffers from Parkinson’s disease, as did John Paul II — while Ratzinger had a stroke in the 1980s.

Analysts say the two sides may cancel each other out, possibly leading to a repeat of the 1978 scenario which produced the outsider Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II.

If the front-runners fall away in early voting — analysts expect several ballots — the conservatives may put forward Venice cardinal Angelo Scola, 63, or Austria’s Christoph Schoenborn, 60.

Prospects on the liberal side include Milan Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi, 71, Lisbon cardinal Jose Da Cruz Policarpo, 69, and 62-year-old Honduran Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga.

Judging from the terse wording of a Vatican statement on Friday, debate was intense during the cardinals’ 11th general congregation ahead of the conclave: they “dedicated the entire morning to an exchange of ideas on the problems of the Church and of the world.”

Meanwhile, a variety of Vatican personnel including cleaners, cooks, medical staff, drivers, elevator operators, technicians, police and Swiss guards took an oath of secrecy ahead of the conclave.

Workmen have also installed a chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel for the famous smoke signals that will indicate whether a new Pope has been elected.

In line with a centuries-old tradition, if the cardinals do not obtain the required two-thirds majority vote for a new Pope, black smoke will rise from the chimney. White smoke and bells will indicate success.