Focus on: the next pope

Will Hodges asks what the political and economic implications of the Catholic church's decision could be

The resignation Pope Benedict XVI from the papacy was met with shock and disbelief from Catholics around the world. The 85-year-old's departure from the Vatican on the grounds of his deteriorating health marks the first abdication of a pope since 1415, and the decision stands to fundamentally change the customs surrounding succession to one of the world's most important religious seats.

No sooner had the news of the Pope's resignation broken, than speculation began mounting as to who would succeed the German Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger to lead more than one billion Catholics worldwide. According to the Vatican, the conclave of cardinals that will elect a successor is scheduled to start on 15 March with a new pope likely to be elected in time for Easter.

With the growth of Catholicism in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which is shifting the church's centre of gravity away from Europe, cardinals are faced with the challenge of electing a pope who can represent followers across the world, and meet their social and political demands. A list of potential candidates is already circulating in the media, with the frontrunners including cardinals from Argentina, Honduras, Ghana and Nigeria.

Among those reported to be in the running are Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, from Ghana, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, 80, from Nigeria. If either were selected, they would become the first African to hold the position for 1,500 years and the first black pope in the history of the Catholic church.

Electing an African would send out the clearest message yet of the growing shift in the balance of power - religious and political - between the developed and the developing world. With a growing middle class and an expanding consumer base, Africa in particular is becoming an increasingly important market for global trade. Foreign direct investment - investment in Africa from overseas sources - grew from $9 billion (£5.8 billion) in 2000 to $40 billion in 2011.

In addition to its growing economic influence, the developing world represents the fastest-growing area for religious faith, including Catholicism. Between 2000 and 2008 the proportion of the world's Catholics living in Africa grew from 12.5 per cent to nearly 15 per cent. During this period the percentage of those based in Europe fell from just under 27 per cent to a little over 24 per cent.

In some ways, the election of a black African would go a long way towards bringing the Catholic church into the 21st century. But Turkson's religious views, which reflect those held across much of Africa and Asia, remain staunchly conservative. The Ghanaian's traditional take on controversial issues such as homosexuality, contraception and abortion could represent a social step backwards for the church if he were elected, and have implications for sexual freedom and women's rights across the world.

Many observers expect the position to ultimately go to a more typical candidate. The reported favourite is the Italian, Cardinal Angelo Scola, followed by French-Canadian Marc Ouellet. Choosing a candidate from further afield, however, would be a major step in bringing the developed and the developing world closer together.

Will the election of a new pope have implications for global politics, or is it a religious event only of interest to Catholics?

*"It may play a significant factor in the private lives of many people in the world, but (hopefully) in broadly secular countries the Pope does not have any influence over economic activity."*Dan Osborn - University of East Anglia

*"Everything is connected with global economics somehow. And even though I believe church and state should be separated by all means, reality proves otherwise." *Anna Bella - University of Edinburgh

*"I really don't see how the election of the new pope is of any interest to global politics. [But if he were from] Africa or Latin America, surely this would give a more fair representation of the Catholic population." *Conor Scott - University of Edinburgh