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PARIS (Reuters) - With Pope Benedict's stunning announcement that he will resign later this month, the time may be coming for the Roman Catholic Church to elect its first non-European leader and it could be a Latin American.
The region already represents 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25 percent in its European heartland.
After the Pole John Paul and German-born Benedict, the post once reserved for Italians is now open to all. The new pope will be the man that the cardinals who elect him at the next conclave think will guide the Church best.
Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped surprisingly clear hints about possible successors. The upshot of their remarks is that the next pope could well be from Latin America.
"I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church," said Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now holds the pope's old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn't centred on Europe," the German-born archbishop told Duesseldorf's Rheinische Post newspaper just before Christmas.
Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican department for Christian unity, told the Tagesanzeiger daily in Zurich at the same time that the Church's future was not in Europe.
"It would be good if there were candidates from Africa or South America at the next conclave," he said, referring to the closed-door election in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
Asked if he would vote for a non-European over a European candidate if they were equally qualified, he responded: "Yes."
Those two interviews took place at a time when there was no speculation about Benedict leaving and Church leaders may be less frank now that a conclave is looming.
The fact that Benedict cited health reasons for resigning could favour younger candidates, no matter where they are from.
The attraction of a non-European candidate would be in the change of style he could provide and the focus he could direct on issues closer to Catholics in developing countries.
Since all cardinals who will vote in the conclave were named by the conservative John Paul or Benedict, few would be expected to make major changes on issues such as artificial birth control, homosexuality or a wider role for women in the Church.
If it now really is Latin America's turn, the leading candidates there seem to be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the huge diocese of Sao Paulo, or the Italian-Argentine Leonardo Sandri, now heading the Vatican department for Eastern Churches.
Scherer, a Brazilian of German origin, ranks as a moderate because he both denounced the political activism of Latin America's "liberation theology" but retained its broader social concern about poverty and injustice.
A moral conservative, he has campaigned against abortion even in cases of rape or when the woman's life is at risk. He has also blamed the government's safe-sex condom distribution programme for sexual promiscuity and unwanted pregnancies.
He is just as firm against homosexuality. "Sexuality is not an 'option' but a fact of nature and a gift of God," he wrote in 2011. "The increasing ambiguity and confusion in relation to sexual identity, which is taking over our culture, is a cause for concern."
Sandri, a career diplomat, doesn't have a long paper trail on hot button issues that were not part of his brief, but he could hardly have reached such a senior position at the Vatican without being in line with Church orthodoxy.
Perhaps his best known public statement was the announcement of Pope John Paul's death in 2005 when he held the Vatican's third highest post as chief of staff in the Secretariat of State.
Peter Turkson from Ghana, now head of the Vatican's justice and peace department, is often tipped as Africa's frontrunner.
On use of condoms, a key issue there because of the AIDS epidemic, he has hinted at some leeway without openly opposing the Church's basic opposition to them.
He has said fidelity and abstinence are safer options than condoms and money spent on providing condoms would be better used to supply retro-viral drugs to those already infected.
In 2011, Turkson issued a paper condemning what he called the "idolatry of the market" and called for a global central bank to keep developed countries from exploiting poorer ones.
"The people on Wall Street need to sit down and go through a process of discernment and see whether their role managing the finances of the world is actually serving the interests of humanity and the common good," he told journalists.
While he supports the all-male clergy, Turkson was the first Vatican official to appoint a lay woman to a senior position. Italian Flaminia Giovanelli is undersecretary, the number three position, in his department.
Europe, which has half the cardinals in the conclave even though only a quarter of the world's Catholics live there, still has strong candidates if the voting tilts to the Old Continent.
Its leading candidate is Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, a traditional springboard to the papacy. Vatican watchers saw Benedict's decision to transfer him there from Venice in 2011 as a tip he might be the pontiff's preferred successor.
Scola has been an outspoken opponent of civil unions in Italy. His 2003 book The Nuptial Mystery gave a long theological argument favouring traditional marriage and denouncing abortion, artificial birth control, feminism and homosexuality.
As head of the Oasis Foundation promoting exchanges between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, he is one of the few candidates with frequent contacts with Islam, the second largest faith in the world after Christianity.
The man who might provide the most change could be Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a former student and ally of Benedict whose doctrinal orthodoxy is not in question but who has shown unusual flexibility dealing with pastoral challenges.
He opposed a "call to disobedience" by reformist priests but chose to dialogue with them rather than simply discipline them.
When conservatives urged him to unseat an openly gay man elected to a parish council, he invited him to lunch and afterward said he was a sincere man who should keep the post.
This more nuanced approach could appeal to cardinals who don't want another isolated pope but cost him votes among the most conservative cardinals.
While there are no official candidates, here are the "papabili" (potential popes) most frequently mentioned recently. The list is alphabetical, not in order of their chances, and will probably change between now and when the conclave is held, most likely in March.
- Joao Braz de Aviz (Brazil, 65) brought fresh air to the Vatican department for religious congregations when he took over in 2011. He supports the preference for the poor in Latin America's liberation theology, but not the excesses of its advocates. Possible drawbacks include his low profile.
- Timothy Dolan, (USA, 62) became the voice of U.S. Catholicism after being named archbishop of New York in 2009. His humour and dynamism have impressed the Vatican, where both are often missing. But cardinals are wary of a "superpower pope" and his back-slapping style may be too American for some.
- Marc Ouellet (Canada, 68) is effectively the Vatican's top staff director as head of the Congregation for Bishops. He once said becoming pope "would be a nightmare." Though well connected within the Curia, the widespread secularism of his native Quebec could work against him.
- Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy, 70) has been Vatican culture minister since 2007 and represents the Church to the worlds of art, science, culture and even to atheists. This profile could hurt him if cardinals decide they need an experienced pastor rather than another professor as pope.
- Leonardo Sandri (Argentina, 69) is a "transatlantic" figure born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents. He held the third-highest Vatican post as its chief of staff in 2000-2007. But he has no pastoral experience and his job overseeing eastern churches is not a power position in Rome.
- Odilo Pedro Scherer (Brazil, 63) ranks as Latin America's strongest candidate. Archbishop of Sao Paulo, largest diocese in the largest Catholic country, he is conservative in his country but would rank as a moderate elsewhere. The rapid growth of Protestant churches in Brazil could count against him.
- Christoph Schoenborn (Austria, 67) is a former student of Pope Benedict with a pastoral touch the pontiff lacks. The Vienna archbishop has ranked as papal material since editing the Church catechism in the 1990s. But some cautious reform stands and strong dissent by some Austrian priests could hurt him.
- Angelo Scola (Italy, 71) is archbishop of Milan, a springboard to the papacy, and is many Italians' bet to win. An expert on bioethics, he also knows Islam as head of a foundation to promote Muslim-Christian understanding. His dense oratory could put off cardinals seeking a charismatic communicator.
- Luis Tagle (Philippines, 55) has a charisma often compared to that of the late Pope John Paul. He is also close to Pope Benedict after working with him at the International Theological Commission. While he has many fans, he only became a cardinal in 2012 and conclaves are wary of young candidates.
- Peter Turkson (Ghana, 64) is the top African candidate. Head of the Vatican justice and peace bureau, he is spokesman for the Church's social conscience and backs world financial reform. He showed a video criticising Muslims at a recent Vatican synod, raising doubts about how he sees Islam. (Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Giles Elgood)