Given that he'll have more power than many world governments, with over one billion Catholics under his direct guidance, it comes as a shock to discover that the election process for Pope has the shadowy, ramshackle quality of an Italian election. Think bewildering numbers of parties, unexpected coalitions and backstairs scheming — but in the end it's the monopoly man that wins out. Just that, in the case of the Pope, it's God instead of (Italian Prime Minister) Silvio Berlusconi. And while God always gets his man, no–one has much of a clue as to who that man will be — except the Vatican inner circle. In the words of Vatican analyst Marco Politi, even experts "know only one per cent of what's really going on. We're navigating in the dark."

Just outside the Vatican, however, people are more concerned with getting ready for the death of the best–marketed pontiff in history. Comandini, a souvenir shop near St Peter's Square, has just ordered in hundreds of John Paul II medallions, which they say will be gone within a week after he dies. The world's biggest TV stations, meanwhile, are preparing for the climax of their 10–year Vatican vigil to provide 24–hour feeds from the death of the old pontiff to the election of the new.

For some — including even a large slice of the European liberal press — the resulting cloud of adulation will be well justified, and the choice of the next Pope is simply a matter of choosing someone to continue Pope John Paul II's 26 years of good work.

He is already being remembered as the original anti–capitalist, the world's greatest campaigner against poverty, the man who helped knock out communism and brought together the world's religions. Witness his uplifting speeches on behalf of peace and unity, his ecumenism in seeking to unite Islam, Judaism and Christianity — particularly after 9/11 — and his recent nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This clear–cut verdict does not come so easily to rational observers. For them, his words have been no more than pleasant–sounding rhetoric, all undermined by his sad failure to budge on four of the late–20th century's most pressing issues: contraception, birth control, the status of women and abortion. There was the Vatican's refusal of condoms for AIDS–ravaged populations, the Papal veto on abortions for Bosnian women raped during war — and let's not forget the schisms caused by the Pope's own–brand conservatism within the world's Christian churches (take his stance on homosexuality and the involvement of women in the Church).

On these issues, Vatican statements have been received with consternation from inside the Catholic Church — let alone the liberal world. On condoms, for example, Belgian Archbishop Godfried Danneels pointed out that Vatican policy contravened the sixth commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill'.

Given this, it is all the more disturbing that there is much in Karol Wojtyla's legacy that will not only affect the eventual choice of Pope but also, for the foreseeable future, Vatican policy. For one thing, his posthumous opinions are certain to emerge at the election of the next pontiff through the 226 cardinals that he himself has appointed since his accession — the extra 31 created last September will have their inauguration ceremonies rushed though early this year. The result is that all but ten of the 135 electing cardinals were nominated by the man himself. Their ongoing lobbying power inside the Holy See will be huge.

And yet, as an old Italian saying goes, 'a fat Pope always follows a thin Pope': history shows that conclaves tend to elect Popes with opposite qualities to their predecessors. In that case, the fact that Wojtyla's reign has been long, loud and very conservative on key liberal issues offers a glimmer of hope to those desperate for change.

One of the few certainties is that if there is a liberal backlash, it will be caused by John Paul's steady centralisation of church power. It is no secret that his dismantling of the Second Vatican Council's proposals to give laity more say in the running of the Church made him unpopular both within the corridors of the Vatican and in dioceses across the world.

If a decentralising Pope does emerge, as is possible, a degree of liberalisation could well be on the way. Parochial movements in Africa and South America have occasionally sought to usefully adapt Catholic doctrine to particular socio–cultural conditions, as liberation theology nearly did for the Brazil poor in the 1980s — before being crushed by John Paul II.

But even if a papabile ('popeable') exists to challenge current Church power structures — or review any of Wojtyla's recently–issued, hard–line doctrine on birth control — would he survive the nomination process, let alone be elected by the conclave? One much–touted candidate is the polyglot Milanese Cardinal, Carlo Maria Martini, an admired intellectual in Italy who, at a 1999 synod, urged more 'collegiality' (democracy) within the Church.

Martini's aim had been to help resolve questions about marriage, sexuality and the role of women. The speech, however, "found no acceptance at all within the synod", according to conservative insider Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi. Tettamanzi's comments went unanswered, a testament to the Pope's ideological grip over the majority of bishops and cardinals present.

Liberal–rationalists' other big hope is the aforementioned 70–year old Archbishop Danneels, whose wit and intellect has won him respect inside the College and on both sides of the political divide. But his opinions that women should play a larger role in the Catholic Church and that condoms should be used in certain circumstances caused consternation mostly at the top of the Vatican. For this reason, even if he is nominated, it seems unlikely that he would get through a pro–Wojtyla conclave.

The deck may be stacked against liberal progression but the stakes are higher than ever. Of the extra 250 million new Catholics since 1978, 65 per cent live in the Third World. What's more, they make up a more traditional flock that tends to regard the pontiff in no uncertain terms as God's spokesman on earth. And with Europe's Catholic population levelling off, the case for a Third World Pope is clear. Trouble is, while not without their good points, both the highly–tipped Third World papabili appear in as much denial over sex and sexuality as John Paul II has been.

Take Francis Arinze. Being a black African (from Nigeria) his election would no doubt send a positive sign to the Third World, as the Pope's doctrinal watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger has said. As the successful head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the person to arrange Pope John Paul II's first–ever visit to a mosque, he could be very valuable in a world divided along an Islamic–Christian fault line. Then again, when Arinze said that homosexuality "mocked the institution of marriage" in front of a university crowd in Georgetown, in the US, he showed remarkable insensitivity.

Ditto for the most–mentioned Latin American candidate, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, formerly head of the Latin American Bishops group. Sure, he is a major railer against Third World debt; along with Bono of U2, he laudably presented a petition signed by 17 million to the 1999 G8 meeting asking for debt relief. Yet after the US media's coverage of the American paedophile scandals in 2002, Rodriguez complained bitterly about the reporting of the story — to the anger of Christians and atheists everywhere who were demanding a full and open investigation.

All this hasn't stopped Rodriguez from being ever–more tipped, though. As Politi wrote back in 1999 in the Italian daily national La Repubblica, senior cardinals in the Curia (the Vatican administrative body) were exploring a pre–election alliance with younger cardinal–archbishops in Latin America, and he was at the top of the list.

Not having a Pope from the sex–scandal–ridden superpower, America, is perhaps the one thing liberals and Catholic bible–thumpers can agree on. So, what of Europe? Apart from their geo–strategic disadvantages for the Vatican, the candidates — like Pierre Eyt from Bordeaux, the Jewish Parisian Jean Marie Lustiger and Ratzinger — if elected, would, in the words of John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the US weekly National Catholic Reporter, either "deeply alienate progressives" or be "in the mould of John Paul".

By slight contrast, the Genoese Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi is, as Allen says, a 'less divisive conservative'. The odds are in his favour, and not just because he is listed as the front–runner by the Irish bookmaking website many Italians are itching to return to a compatriot the role they often refer to as their 'monarchy' — and with Italians making up 23 per cent of the electing Cardinals, Tettamanzi looks to be in by more than a wing and a prayer. And yet as a key member of the deeply anti–liberal, John Paul II–backed Opus Dei movement and the loudest critic of the reforms proposed by Cardinal Martini, he appears to have the same damaging sexuality and gender obsessions as his master.

If the Pope and papabili look riddled with ethical contradictions, it's worth remembering that an impossible, inhuman rigidity is built into the job of being God's representative on Earth.

First, there is the psychological element. As Cambridge Christianity Professor Eamon Duffy points out, "The terrible thing about being Pope is that you can't be vulnerable. You can't be uncertain, you can't differ. The whole thing is constructed so that in the end, you're the [only] one who knows if you're faithful." And yet, incredibly, the New Testament builds human fallibility and doubt into the picture of Saint Peter, the first Pope ever.

The Catholic reply is that ultimately, their sort of objective values do not answer to such anthropomorphic logic. And so the Pope's eternal philosophical conundrum: Perfect, eternal values come from a perfect, divine voice. God's spokesman is therefore the last person who could be 'uncertain' and modify those values in the light of changing times.

Yet if they are interested in perfection, maybe anti–liberal Catholics should learn the argument that the Papacy's current resistance to modernity could be as much a matter of historical contingency as inspired doctrine. In the 19th century the Vatican was propped up by, ironically, northern Protestant governments as a symbol of the ancien régime, of political legitimacy and the lost world. And today it so remains: a counter–cultural, democracy–defying institution, its historical identity revolving around the need to keep itself same in a world where things are, without doubt, changing fast.

The ability — whatever the will — of the next Pope to make Catholic doctrine work for most earthlings looks very limited. As an Italian Cardinal said recently during the closing credit–roll of the Italian talk show, Enigma: "When the conclave elects the next Pope it will naturally seek to act for the good of the Church."

But whether the Church acts in the interests of its millions of impoverished, disenfranchised adherents around the world will be a truer test.

Orlando Radice is a freelance journalist, currently based in Rome